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.


It’s not funny

November 20, 2007


UK Government Loses My Bank Details

November 20, 2007

Along with 25,000,000 others. Read this if you dare. Personally, I find it utterly beyond belief. A complete idiot employed (hopefully not for long) by the UK Revenue and Customs office copied the personal details of all families in the UK with a child under 16, including their bank details, to two CDs, then popped them in the internal mail where they subsequently disappeared. I’m lost for words. And the Government wants to convince us that they can be trusted with a National ID database? Not a chance, not now, not ever. I hearby pledge myself totally to the cause of opposing the ID card and database initiative – not on any privacy or civil liberties grounds (although I am sure there are plenty of them), just simply because Government IT people cannot be trusted. As sure as eggs is eggs, if they build a National ID database the project will run massively over budget, be delivered late, on old technology, and then some poorly paid, poorly motivated and poorly managed dweeb will accidently send it to their grandma, or put it on a laptop that gets stolen or (far fetched, I know) put it on a CD and pop it in the post.

Sun to Acquire Vaau

November 20, 2007

I’m a little slow on the news front these days, what with having a proper job and all, but I was doing some research on Identity Compliance and headed off the the Vaau website. What did I find? Vaau will shortly be swallowed up by Sun. Sun have made some smart acquisitions in the past, especially Waveset, and this looks like another. I spoke to the Vaau guys at Catalyst and was impressed with their breadth of vision. They didn’t seem to have a strong MIIS/ILM integration story, and I noticed the Sun logo on several of their demos, so I suppose it should have been pretty obvious what was coming. It’s slightly sad to see another small, innovative vendor disappear, but look on the bright side, at least I won’t have to struggle trying to pronounce their bizarre name anymore (vah-ow? vee-oo? vay-ow? vow?)

It will be interesting to see how this influences Microsoft. At the moment RBAC within the Microsoft IAM environment is either provided through AD and associated AD-centric vendors such as Quest and Netpro, or enterprise-wide RBAC is enabled via Omada integrated with MIIS/ILM. As far as I’m aware there will be no additional RBAC support in ILM2, so this situation is likely to continue for a while yet.

IAM Trainwrecks

November 19, 2007


I was looking through some of my old project documents on the long train journey North from Peterborough to Edinburgh this morning when I came across this – How to Avoid an IAM Trainwreck (.pdf 850kB). It’s an article that I wrote nearly two years ago with the intention of submitting for publication in some magazine or other, but I don’t think we ever actually got around to doing so (probably too busy with real projects). It’s always a difficult thing, looking back at something you used to think was great. Time has a way of making naive stylistic errors and bad grammar stand out, after the blinding effect of initial pride in your work has worn off. But even allowing for a couple of wince-making lines (that any decent sub-editor would probably have caught anyway) it still makes some decent points. It’s quite scary how many of these problems I still seem to run into.

I’d be interested in any feedback from you, and thoughts on your own IAM trainwreck avoidance strategies (always supposing there is actually anyone out there, apart from people googling “lolcat” and ending up here by mistake).


November 16, 2007


I’ve been brushing up on WS-Federation again recently and the more I read the more convinced I become that it is the answer. The answer to what, I hear you ask? Everything, that’s what. I’ll have more to say about this soon, but I’m very excited. In the meantime, I suggest you read the white paper at the bottom of this page if you haven’t done so already.

Everything You Know About Identity Management Is Wrong

November 15, 2007

Jackson Shaw has an interesting post called “Everything You Know About Identity Management Is Wrong”. He didn’t say it, Gartner’s Neil MacDonald said it at a presentation Jackson attended, I think. Anyway, it’s very interesting. I felt compelled to agree on a couple of the points made:

Security-service oriented applications will require security-as-a-service, including identity services.

This was a hot topic at Burton Catalyst Europe and I think it’s inevitable. Application developers shouldn’t have to code identity into their apps, they should just consume it from a central ID service. It already happens when Kerberos-enabled apps consume tokens from AD, why not extend this model across the whole enterprise? What we need is an identity black box that spits out tokens in return for credentials. The tokens get passed to the apps, the apps can read the tokens and everyone is happy.

Overlooking the synergy between middleware and IAM

For sure. Right now I’m looking at a situation where I want to plug MIIS into IBM Websphere MQ. MQ is being used to tie together many legacy applications so getting MIIS to create MQ messages seems a logical next step.