The Ministry of Silly Printing: But I don't want my golf club correspondence to say 'UNCLASSIFIED' at the bottom

Weekend upgrade shows how many MoD staff made personal use of tech

On Call A reader takes us back to a bygone era, when Blighty's brass inhabited wood-panelled offices, and the air was thick with pipe smoke and WW2 anecdotes. Welcome to On Call.

Our story takes place in the 1980s as the era of officers that served in the Second World War was coming to an end and computerisation was slithering into departments that had been hitherto resolutely manual.

Register reader "Nigel" was dealing with a software update for some Ministry Of Defence (MoD) kit. "The software," he said, "was Uniplex ported to a modified secure version of Unix running on Honeywell Bull XPS-100s."

For those unfamiliar with the beast, Uniplex provided an integrated suite of office tools, including word processor, spreadsheet, and calendar applications. Quite some time before Microsoft Office became the behemoth it is today.

One of the differences was the selection of a security classification at login. The selection could be equal or lower to the user's highest authorisation. Handy for ensuring the correct eyes saw the correct documents and a reason why Microsoft's recent Azure Information Protection emissions reminded Nigel of events from decades previously.

However, that selection was the least of Nigel's worries when, following a weekend upgrade, queries began to flood into the helpdesk. "Why is the printer printing 'UNCLASSIFIED' at the bottom of every page?" was an example.

No prizes for guessing what the upgrade had done. It was clearly doing its job, even if the implications had clearly not been understood.

By Tuesday morning a tidy pile of complaints had built up, mostly about the printing of UNCLASSIFIED but also about other classification levels as well. Nigel was the fellow on call, and so he would have to deal with them.

"I picked the highest-ranking person – an Air Vice Marshall – to go visit first," he told us. "Back in those [unenlightened] days senior ranks all had a 'Miss Moneypenny' sitting in the outer office," he remembered. "They were wonderful ladies and many of them had started work in the MoD during World War Two."

"Being in my late 20s they used to treat me like one of their sons," he told us.

Nigel was ushered into the office and found the Air Vice Marshall was deep in discussion with an Air Commodore who, coincidentally, was also baffled by the "UNCLASSIFIED" label. Peering through the pipe and cigarette smoke of the oak-panelled room, Nigel got to the bottom of the problem. The officer had had a letter typed out for his golf club and didn't want "UNCLASSIFIED" on the bottom of the page.

The "Miss Moneypenny" smiled knowingly at the explanation. The officer had been dictating his letters to her over the years and they had then been tapped out by the typing pool of audio typists. The realities of the switch to Uniplex had mostly gone unnoticed by the brass until the update began slapping "UNCLASSIFIED" over everything.

Rules are rules, and Nigel was not allowed to disable the labelling. At least, not at first. It wasn't until the complaints intensified that the edict was handed down: turn off the "UNCLASSIFIED" label. And peace once more descended.

"In our monthly project review meeting with the MoD this became an agenda item," Nigel told us, "and I do not think any of them realised how much personal correspondence had been going through the typing pool.

"I don't think we included this as a cost-saving measure…"

We've all had to take The Call after a weekend update left users dazed and confused on a Monday. But have you ever had to deal with the old world running headlong into the new during your time in support? Tell your story with an email to On Call. ®

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