Final Words (for now) on the Child Benefit Lapse

November 26, 2007

I read a couple of things over the weekend that seemed to vindicate my main thoughts from last week (well, I would hardly read or report on stuff that contradicted me, would I?). Whilst it’s never nice to blow your own trumpet, if I don’t give myself a couple of toots it’s unlikely anyone else will, so what the heck.

Toot! I said that I found it hard to believe that the breach was caused by a junior official deciding on his own initiative to copy the entire database. I thought it was much more likely that the whole thing was down to systematic incompetence. According to The Sunday Times yesterday, “the Revenue routinely sent secret data with no security“. That doesn’t quite square up with what the good Chancellor of the Exchequer (the government minister in charge of this department, international readers) said in Parliament, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it confirms what I suspected. The main cause of this loss of data was an endemic laissez-faire attitude within Customs and Excise with regard to citizens’ personal data. They didn’t care enough about it to treat it as valuable. Hopefully they (and other agencies and companies who hoard this stuff) might just have been frightened enough by the reaction to “datagate” to change this attitude before it happens again. Which it will.

Toot! Toot! I also said that this affair should convince us all to oppose the National ID Card and database, simply on the grounds that it will not be secure and its contents will inevitably be exposed to ne’er-do-wells and ID thieves either through negligence or a crooked employee (who now knows the real value of the data). The Government’s answer to these concerns is “Biometrics”. They claim that as the database will contain our encrypted biometric signature, there is no way ID thieves could ever steal our records, as they wouldn’t be able to use it. Yah, shuah. Ben Goldacre at does a far better job than I could on systematically dismantling this claim. Sorry, but if you make something valuable enough, someone, somewhere is going to work out how to steal it and how much more valuable is someone’s biometrically-authenticated identity than a plain old NI number?

Anyway, enough on this for now, more riveting real-world enterprise IAM and not-very-funny lolcats to follow shortly, I promise.


Sober Reflections on the Child Benefit Agency Debacle

November 22, 2007

A couple of days have now passed since the Government announced that two CDs containing the entire Child Benefit database went missing in the post, but the furore shows no signs of dying down, quite rightly too. Now I’ve had a chance to listen to the rhetoric on both sides, and the many opinions offered by all sorts of “experts” from every media outlet, I offer the following.

Don’t Panic, But Do Be Angry
There is no need to panic. To paraphrase Michael Winner, “calm down dear, it’s only your personal data”. The chances of this data actually ending up in the wrong hands are fairly small, and there was no data in the breach that would allow hackers to suddenly log onto our Internet Banking accounts and withdraw huge sums. There is every reason to be angry though as this was a very serious breach. Whilst there was no data that hackers could use directly, there was a mass of data that ID thieves would just love to get their hands on. In particular, details such as our children’s birthdays are often used as secondary verification; I can think of at least one time I used my eldest son’s birthday as a six-figure PIN, along with my wedding day. The sheer weight of this personal data, combined with our National Insurance numbers, could well be sufficient to convince a poorly-trained or naïve customer service rep that the person on the end of the phone claiming to be me actually is me (when it isn’t – it’s a dirty ID thief).

The Truth Will Set You Free
Hopefully this breach will make us all think a little harder about how we manage our personal identity data. The Government, other organizations, and especially company websites, have trained us to enter our most precious dates and details into online forms in order to receive rewards. We now need to break free from this Pavlovian conditioning and take back control. We need to stop trusting those who ask for our data and ask them some hard questions: why do you need this? How do I know you will look after it properly? Personally, I rarely enter my genuine contact information unless I am utterly convinced there is a need for it. I don’t enter my real date of birth, nor do I enter my mobile or home phone number, even if the little web form has an asterisk next to it telling me it’s mandatory. As an aside, hello to all the web marketers out there – how did you get on with Mickey Mouse, the Ugandan Company Directory who wants to spend $10,000,000 dollars on your software in the next week? What, he turned out to be false? And you handed him over your valuable white paper too? You mean people give you false details when you demand their mobile phone number in return for marketing data? For shame! What is the world coming to? Here’s an idea, how about you all get a grip and stop expecting us to cede our private data to you? I know all you want it for is to sign me up for your newsletter and to give to your telesales monkeys to bombard me with phone calls about your crappy software. I know your game, I don’t trust you and I ain’t gonna give it to you.

Sugar-Coated Iceberg
We need also to understand that this breach is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now, all across the world, managers and minions who have been mismanaging databases full of identity data are wiping their brows and thinking “thank God it was them, not us”. These people are almost certainly also storing our data insecurely and transporting it inappropriately, they just haven’t been caught out yet. Just look at the recent breach at retailer T J Maxx. TJX admitted to losing 45.7m credit and debit card numbers and personal information relating to almost 500,000 people in a recent security breach. How many more will there be? All organizations that capture any personal data need to take a long hard look at their current processes for capturing, storing and providing access to this data. If they don’t need it, they need to get rid of it. If they must keep it, then they must keep it securely. They should encrypt the base data and then put rigorous access control procedures in place, including authentication, authorization, and audit processes. In other words make sure no-one can get access to the data unless they prove who they are (using strong authentication, not just username and passwords), that they have the right to do what they are trying to do and that thorough audit logs are kept

Plain Old Incompetence or More Systemic Failure?
Getting back to the Child Benefit Agency breach, I find it very hard to believe that this was just simply a junior official deciding on his own initiative, without the knowledge of management, to copy the entire database to CD and pop it in the internal mail. There are some odd things going on here. For a start, why did he copy the entire database? If the what the Conservative head of the Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh, says is true, and the National Audit Office wanted only limited child benefit records, then surely the most obvious thing to do would be to run a simple query against the database and generate just the data required? You could then take the results file, encrypt it using a file encryption tool, and email it to the recipient with a read receipt attached: simple, cheap and quick. In fact, far simpler and cheaper than copying the whole thing to disk and posting it. Did this just not occur to him? Or, more likely, did someone else in authority suggest it? Apparently this wasn’t the first time the NAO had requested the data – surely he mentioned the fact to his line manager. I can understand the Conservatives and other opposition politicians trying to make political capital out of the mess, but I just don’t buy the argument that this was simply a result of penny-pinching. How can burning a CD be cheaper and easier than my alternative suggestion? The whole thing smacks more of systemic incompetence, lack of training, lack of professionalism and poor supervision. How could the departmental manager not have known what was going on? Surely the request for this extremely sensitive data didn’t go directly to a junior official? If it did, then this says something quite serious about a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of the data and something even more serious about the lines of communication between government departments. If the manager did know what was going on, then he or she needs his or her backside kicked every bit as hard as the clerk who did the awful deed. Had everyone in the department been under no illusions that the database was sacrosanct and that access to it should be protected at all costs, this almost certainly would never have happened.

Morals, Morals, Morals
The morals of this sorry tale are threefold. For everyone, use this as a reminder to take more care of your personal data. Yes, I know that you have no choice but to hand it over to the Government, and that you should be able to trust them, but learn not to hand it over to anyone else unless you really have to. Question those who would take your identity data from you for no good reason. Question hotel clerks as to why they need your home phone number and don’t give lazy and greedy eCommerce sites your real mobile number unless you think there is a genuine reason for them to have it. For organizations that grab and hoard personal data from customers, stop it. Stop training us to hand over our identity data to people who have no business with it. Retain only that which you really need and then protect it properly. Control access to this data rigorously and keep audit logs. Learn to treat other people’s identity data with respect. We are not commodities. Finally, for the UK Government, realize that what you have done is (once again) reinforce people’s belief that that they cannot trust you and that Government IT departments are fundamentally incompetent. Pay your permanent staff a decent wage and train them properly. Get managers to manage and understand that the buck stops with them. Use external contractors sparingly, but don’t be afraid to call in the experts when you need to. Stop using policies and procedures as crutches, teach individuals instead to be accountable for what they do. Most importantly, drop the ridiculous ID card scheme. It will run vastly over budget and over time. It will cost billions, have little real impact in preventing crime or terrorism, and, most critically, some poorly paid, poorly motivated and poorly managed dweeb will inadvertently (or, if the price is right, deliberately) release the entire contents of the database to the Russian Business Network.