British Government computer system shut down after data breach

November 4, 2008

When you hand over important details to the government, you expect a certain level of protection of that data. Unfortunately, it’s probably safer to give your details to a stranger in the street than trust the British Government to take care of them. The latest data breach saw a memory stick containing details of 12 million people found outside a pub.

The British Government doesn’t have a good track record on safely looking after its citizens private data. Last November saw two CD’s containing information about people who claim child benefit go missing. Since then, there have been a number of other breaches, the latest being a lost memory stick with personal data on 84,000 prisoners.

And now this new case, potentially the worst breach of all, as it meant personal details of 12 million British people, including tax records and passwords, were lost to the mercy of criminals. Daniel Harrington, a 29-year-old IT analyst for Atos Origin is the man responsible for the loss after he dropped it in a Staffordshire pub car park.

Thankfully, the data never reached the hands of people who would have used it for harm as the lost memory stick was handed in to The Daily Mail, who have returned the device after securing a huge story out if the whole debacle.

However, ministers were forced to shut the Government Gateway website down due to the security breach. This affected both the public and businesses who had signed up to use the service in order to access Whitehall services, including the ability to register a tax return online.

This raises a lot of questions. Why was the data stored on a simple memory stick in the first place? Why was this memory stick then allowed to be removed from the offices of Atos Origin? How can any British citizen now trust the authorities with their personal details when the list of security breaches and data loss incidents grows on a monthly basis?

While all of this is going on, the British Government is trying to build a giant database with even more details kept on all of us, and trying to introduce a deeply unpopular identity card scheme which would just make it even easier for criminals to obtain details on us due to combining everything in to one.

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One Response to “British Government computer system shut down after data breach”

  1. John Franks:

    In the realm of risk, unmanaged possibilities become probabilities: These data breaches and thefts are due to a lagging business culture. As CIO, I’m always looking for ways to help my team, business teams, and ad hoc measures of various vendors, contractors and internal team members. A book that is required reading is “I.T. WARS: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium.”
    We keep a few copies kicking around – it would be a bit much to expect outside agencies to purchase it on our say-so. But, particularly when entertaining bids for projects and in the face of challenging change, we ask potential solutions partners to review relevant parts of the book, and it ensures that these agencies understand our values and practices.
    The author, David Scott, has an interview here that is a great exposure:
    The book came to us as a tip from one of our interns who attended a course at University of Wisconsin, where the book is in use. It has helped us to understand that, while various systems of security are important, no system can overcome laxity, ignorance, or deliberate intent to harm. The real crux of the matter is education and training to the organization as a whole – and a recurring schedule of training – in building a sustained culture and awareness; an efficient prism through which every activity is viewed from a security perspective prior to action.
    I like to pass along things that work, in the hope that good ideas continue to make their way to me.

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