Senators have raised concerns with restrictions on their government-issued BlackBerry smartphones. The devices have the Global Positioning System (GPS) disabled, the phone is locked after short periods of time, and there are blocks on the installation of applications.
Liberal Party Senator Scott Ryan asked the Department of Finance and Deregulation during Federal Budget estimates on Thursday last week why the GPS functionality on his phone had been disabled.
Department of Finance and Deregulation assistant secretary, financial and e-solutions group, Brett Quester, said the restriction was part of security requirements published by the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) in its Information Security Manual.
"It is about the ability for the device to be tracked," Quester said. "It is a security requirement for a government-issued device not to have that functionality".
Ryan asked whether there had been a review of the GPS restriction. Quester said there had been requests around certain technologies that were put to the Special Minister of State, which had "agreed to continue to abide by the Information Security Manual for the settings required on government-issued BlackBerrys".
Ryan also asked whether any consideration had been given to having certain authorised applications that might be commonly used by Members of Parliament (MPs) on their BlackBerrys. "Their functionality is quite dramatically limited — I did not realise it was DSD — by those provisions, particularly with Google Maps, which is not uncommon or [an] unhelpful website."
Quester replied, saying that he believed that the DSD was not "limiting the functionality of the device". It was just providing the "security requirements to make sure that the devices can transmit data up to X-in-confidence".
The best way forward for requesting additional applications, Quester said, such as those allowing easy use of Twitter, was "to put that request through the Presiding Officers Information Technology Advisory Group". Quester said his department was part of the advisory group, along with the Department of Parliamentary Services. "We can then look at those applications on the advice of that group to see whether we can progress those things if there is a business requirement for those sorts of things," he said.
Labor Party Senator Helen Polley also questioned the department on the government-issued BlackBerrys, asking whether their time-out limit could be extended. "At the moment it is a very short period of time; you have to continually put a password in. I understand the security, and I understand that that is why there is no other option available to us other than a BlackBerry. There was an undertaking that that would be looked at. Can you give us an update on that issue?" Polley asked.
Quester said that he could not update the senator on her question. "Unfortunately, I cannot, I am sorry," he said. Labor Party Senator Jacinta Collins said that on the last occasion she asked a related question — around whether consideration had been given for "a more usable password arrangement" — the answer she had received was not very helpful.
"I think on the last occasion I asked a related question, which was: has consideration been given to a more usable password arrangement? I think the answer I got back on that occasion was: 'No. Bad luck.'," Collins said.
Department of Finance and Deregulation secretary David Tune said there were two options for senators. "You can go the 12-digit thing, or you can use a mix of numbers and upper-case letters and so forth and go eight I think?," Tune said. A colleague corrected him, saying it was seven characters.
Tune conceded it was a frustrating measure. "I use 12 myself, but I find it frustrating as well," he said. Asked if the length of the password and time-outs were a DSD requirement, Quester said it was "part of security".
The Federal Budget estimates also revealed last week that MPs would have to wait for departments to consolidate their handling of IT support for Parliament House and electorate offices after it was revealed that "legislative issues" had pushed the project back until after the federal election.