The civil service's systems will be subjected to new attacks by independent white hat hackers in a bid to spot weaknesses in government data handling before catastrophic losses occur, it was announced today.
The white hat programme is one of a suite of targets, training and scrutiny measures that Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell hopes will bring about a "culture change" across the civil service and restore public faith in the government's competence in handling sensitive data.
He said: "The risk we must counter is that citizens and business lose trust in the Government to handle their data effectively. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the lapses in data security have affected this confidence."
O'Donnell revealed the new programme as he published his office's final report on data handling in government. The internal inquiry ran parallel to the independent Poynter report, also published on Wednesday.
Both investigations were launched in the wake of a series of government data losses last year. The blundering run was topped by HMRC's disappearing unencrypted CDs, which contained 25 million child benefit records. Poynter looked specifically at the HMRC incident, while the Cabinet Office report sets a strategy for improving data handling throughout government.
O'Donnell argued that the government's stores of personal data have brought great benefits to the public. "Yes we have lots of data on individuals," he protested to reporters. "And that is, for individuals, good."
All government departments are in the process of scrambling laptop hard drives after the Cabinet Office, which oversees the civil service, banned unencrypted machines in January.
O'Donnell also said the government's many outsourced data contracts would be amended to insist that private contractors abide by the new data regime. He claimed the response from outsourcing firms to the new rules had been positive.
Proposed new data-based public services will be subject to a Privacy Impact Assessment, which will judge the risks that collecting or sharing the necessary data could have. The UK's privacy watchdog, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, is planning his first use of new civil service spot check powers granted to him following last year's embarrassing rash of data losses.
Announcing formal action against HMRC and the MoD (over laptop losses, reported on today by Sir Edmund Burton) Thomas described the government's handling of data as "deplorable". He said: "Whilst these breaches have been highly publicised and involve big numbers, sadly they are not isolated cases. It is deeply worrying that many other incidents have been reported, some involving even more sensitive data. It is of fundamental importance that lessons are learned from these breaches."
ICO enforcement notices have been issued to the MoD and HMRC requiring them to follow the Burton and Poynter's recommendations respectively - failure to comply is a criminal offence.
Yet another ongoing review of how the government handles information, this time on paper, is currently being led by Sir David Ormand. He was asked to investigate after top secret intelligence documents were left on a Surrey commuter train.
The Cabinet Office today said it will report government progress on data handling to parliament annually. You can read the full report here (pdf). ®