"Data breach" is no longer purely an IT security term, having entered common parlance over the last few months thanks to a rash of public-sector data-loss mishaps, including the loss of 25 million personal details by HM Revenue & Customs.
The inevitable backlash against such breaches has seen government departments trying to lock down data policies, with one example being the implementation of a ban, following yet another data breach at the Ministry of Defence, on unencrypted BlackBerry devices and PDAs being taken out of Whitehall.
However, amid all the fears about lax data control, some experts have been keen to point out that secure access to remote data has enabled a huge step forward in terms of productivity in the public and private sectors, and any attempts to tighten data-management policies should take this into account.
Earlier this month, the home secretary's senior professional adviser on policing, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, released a report, Review of Policing, into how the police service could improve its efficiency. In the review, Flanagan recommended that officers be given mobile data devices to cut down on the bureaucracy involved in "stop and account" procedures, automating the predominantly paper-based process.
In London alone, stopping members of the public to ask them to account for their behaviour generates 48,000 hours of police work annually, according to the report. Recording details of such encounters on pieces of carbon-copy paper takes, on average, seven minutes, before the same information is taken back to the station, transcribed, checked and countersigned by police supervisors. A copy of the paperwork is also given to the member of the public who has been stopped.
Police in Lancashire are already using voice-recording technology to replace the use of carbon paper in stop and account procedures, and Flanagan is keen for this approach to become more widespread. The technology provider in Lancashire is Airwave, which has an established history of providing mainly voice communications platforms for the emergency services.
"I have explored with Airwave the practicality of an officer digitally recording the details of the encounter verbally rather than manually, in writing," wrote Flanagan. "I am assured that this can be done in a way that ensures there is as good a record of the individual encounter as presently exists."
Airwave is keen to expand on its existing role of providing voice services to the emergency services, aiming to also take advantage of the increasing need for secure mobile data provision.
Jeff Paris, director of business development for Airwave, told ZDNet.co.uk that the company is in a position to provide the voice-recognition technology highlighted in the Flanagan report. "With Airwave, that technology is available at the moment," said Paris. "You could ask an officer to make a brief verbal record of the stop, which can be recorded on a central database and translated using voice-to-text translation."
Airwave purchases communications devices from suppliers such as BlackBerry-manufacturer RIM and Motorola and then supplies the device, the communications data platform, a suite of mobile applications and the service to transmit the encrypted data. All packets of data are encrypted when sent over the network.
Devices that have been mislaid can be temporarily disabled, or "stunned", remotely, while devices that have been lost or stolen can be "killed" remotely, with all data wiped and utilities permanently disabled, said Paris.
The Airwave communications platform is called the Mobile Applications Gateway. While it is a homogenous platform, Paris insisted that it is technologically agnostic.
"The logic is: if you have [an interoperable] platform, you give local choice — there are a range of suppliers, and we may be one of them," Paris said.
But, despite the name check from Flanagan, Airwave is not the only technology company providing mobile-data services...
...to the police. RIM, which supplies the police service with BlackBerry devices and is also an Airwave technology partner, is looking to capitalise on police forces' growing need for secure mobile data too.
Around 14,000 BlackBerry handsets are being used by police forces in the UK. RIM's communications system uses commercial GPRS from mobile carriers to transfer data. Data packets are encrypted using 256-bit AES encryption and are sent over the mobile-phone network to proxy servers, which send the data through RIM's mobile-data server, which is connected to police back-office systems.
RIM also claims that its BlackBerry devices enable access to different databases to be restricted by police network administrators on a "need-to-know" basis, to comply with data-protection regulations, said Graham Baker, RIM's UK government strategic manager.
"IT admins can automatically deploy access to applications that are really needed," said Baker. "Everything is policy managed." Like Airwave, RIM is accredited by the Communications Electronics Security Group (CESG, the information assurance arm of GCHQ), and an IT admin can also send a "kill" packet to a device.
Despite the fact that Airwave uses RIM's BlackBerry handsets, the two companies are also competitors, with two distinct approaches to providing the secure mobile-data services that police forces require. Airwave buys in handsets, but provides a dedicated network, apps, apps integration and back end. RIM provides devices, apps, apps integration and back-end support, but buys network time from commercial carriers.
Baker claimed that the communications infrastructure that Airwave uses does not meet the demands of the kind of data services the police will need in the future. Airwave is still predominantly used for secure radio communications and utilises the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra) infrastructure, but is not optimised to carry both voice and applications traffic, he said. "The Tetra radio frequency doesn't have the bandwidth [to carry the necessary data]."
For its part, Airwave claimed that, while it has bought mobile devices from RIM and other suppliers, only it is able to "package an end-to-end service of devices, applications, airtime and data integration".
Airwave's Paris maintained that his company has created a communications network that relies on a series of nodes dotted around the country, with country-wide coverage. The company also has a complete duplicate failover network, to make its network more resilient. "We have a resilient network that is completely standalone," said Paris, "with a number of switches around the UK. I can't tell you where they are for security reasons. These switches are interconnected and connected to police control rooms."
Despite their different approaches, both Baker and Paris, unsurprisingly, agree that police officers could make more use of mobile devices to access not only national databases but local databases in other police authorities.
At the moment, officers in individual constabularies can remotely access some national databases, such as the Police National Computer, which contains details of those cautioned or arrested, vehicles, drivers and stolen property. Police can also access local criminal records, but not outside of their constabulary area, said Paris. As a consequence, much information is only accessible through police-station computers.
"All the time, the police are having to go back to the station; they're not as efficient as they need to be," said Paris.
While Paris admitted there are privacy and civil liberties issues connected with the linking of databases, he said that Airwave products had been accredited by CESG to comply with government privacy and security standards.
"[The police] have to be aware of civil liberties and of the security and integrity of personal data," said Paris. "Security technology is only as good as the people who use it."