UK Government Gateway catches cold – EU needn't sneeze

David Moss 2009

"Ministers have been forced to order an emergency shutdown of a key Government computer system to protect millions of people's private details. The action was taken after a memory stick was found in a pub car park [in Cannock, Staffordshire] containing confidential passcodes to the online Government Gateway system, which covers everything from tax returns to parking tickets". That's what it said in the Mail on Sunday on 2 November 2008.

The "key Government computer system" in the frame is Jerry Fishenden's UK Government Gateway.

That's OK for us Brits, of course, we're used to it. Ever since the records of 25 million child benefit claimants went AWOL, we've become inured to our personal data turning up in the strangest of places, including roundabouts, train carriages, laptops stolen from the boots of most people's cars and secure sites in Iowa City.

But what about our poor unfortunate EU partners, with their quaint habit of keeping confidential personal and business data locked up where only the intended eyes can see it?

The thing is that EU Ministers, including Gordon Brown, signed up unanimously to the Lisbon Declaration on 19 September 2007: "In order to meet the need to exchange information across borders, such as those arising from the obligations of the Services Directive, Member States shall intensify efforts to achieve cross-border interoperability, the importance of which has already been highlighted in the electronic Identity and eProcurement areas. The objective of achieving interoperability applies equally to the implementation of Article 8 of the Services Directive which will be facilitated by interoperable and mutually authenticated electronic identities and electronic documents".

And the vehicle for our end of all this EU interoperability is ... the aforementioned UK Government Gateway.

A serious organisation like the European Commission, having once established the need for cross-border data-sharing, sets about first measuring how well each country's computer systems can communicate, and then sorting out any problems revealed. And so was born Project STORK: "The ultimate goal of the STORK project is to implement an EU-wide interoperable system for the recognition and authentication of eIDs [electronic identities] that will enable businesses, citizens and government employees to use their national eIDs in any Member State".

David Davis raised a question in the House: "The Home Office is currently prototyping a Europe-wide project called Project Stork. How are we going to prevent a repetition of the disaster of the last few weeks [the disappearance of 25 million child benefit records] when sensitive personal data is held not by one government but by 27?" Jacqui Smith couldn't answer the question. She had never heard of Project STORK and asked for more details.

Here are some more details. Although the UK Government Gateway is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, as part of their joined up transformational government initiative, we are actually represented at Project STORK meetings by IPS: "The UKs Identity and Passport Service (IPS) is leading the pilot project, in close co-operation with the Government Gateway, the UKs centralised registration service. 'It is about the eventual pan-European recognition of electronic IDs,' noted an IPS spokesperson".

Goodness knows why IPS are involved. As James Hall, Chief Executive of IPS, has been at some pains to explain, Project STORK has got absolutely nothing to do with his main responsibility, the NIS: "Project Stork is not about ID cards, has nothing to do with the National Identity Scheme or providing data from the National Identity Register". But there it is, it's IPS who face the flak at Project STORK meetings, and not the Cabinet Office.

And quite some flak there must have been. With the source code and the logon details having fallen into the hands of the MoS, and any number of other people, on their journey from that pub car park in Cannock, which French company wanting to do business in the UK can be confident that its data is held confidentially on the UK Government Gateway?

Which Spanish pensioner retiring to Cannock and which Italian student coming to university in the UK can be calmly certain that his or her medical data is not available to the MoS?

And which German civil servant seconded to the embassy in London can be assured that his or her tax details will remain private?

According to our Prime Minister, none of them: "It is important to recognise we cannot promise that every single item of information will always be safe because mistakes are made by human beings. Mistakes are made in the transportation, if you like in the communication, of information".

But what does he know?

A request was sent to Project STORK on 17 January 2009 seeking assurance. The request was repeated on 9 March and 5 August and an answer finally came through from the UK government, via the STORK Dissemination Team, on 25 August 2009: "The loss of the storage device (a USB stick) by a supplier [Atos Origin] responsible for the service delivery of the Government Gateway, did not compromise the Government Gateway or give open access to the Government Gateway application".

So there we have it, the Prime Minister is wrong, losing the source code and the logon details doesn't compromise the UK Government Gateway, and our partners in the EU needn't worry, after all.