The Weekly Round-Up: 18.06.10

iPhone gets red light in government

iPhone gets red light in government

The iPhone may be selling by the cartload but it remains strictly out of bounds to Her Majesty's government ministers.

In this age of austerity you might think 'quite right, too'. You might think that this is because ministers and civil servants get enough perks as it is without furnishing them with fancy touchscreen phones. But hey, ministers are human beings too, right?

So has the Con-Dem coalition's axe cut so deep that ministers will now be issued with yoghurt pots and string in order to communicate? Having now banned mobile phones from cabinet meetings is this the next step in making government an entirely tech-free zone (which is one way to stop the mega-project disasters)?

Not quite - a written answer to a Parliament question this week revealed the iPhone hasn't been approved for official use by ministers or civil servants.

Devices must be cleared for government use by the CESG, the information assurance arm of British intelligence agency GCHQ. And health minister Simon Burns explained iPhones are not approved for government use by the CESG - meaning they are out of bounds to ministers.

Instead, Burns said ministers are issued with BlackBerry devices, an arrangement that is common across Whitehall. Besides, you can't really imagine civil servants using iPhones, the sensible BlackBerry is a far better brand fit: leave the iPhone to the hipsters who travel to work on a skateboard.

(A minor aside. At Silicon Towers the other day someone innocently asked "What's an iPhone 4?", to which came the cruel response "For identifying people with more money than sense.")

Anyway in 2008, the government IT chiefs decreed that no mobile device was to be removed from a Whitehall building unless any personal data stored on it was encrypted.

The ban on the movement of unencrypted mobile devices was imposed in the wake of a string of data losses by government departments, including HMRC's spectacular and still unforgiven loss of 25 million personal details.

And those CDs are still floating around, somewhere, like a miniature digital Mary Celeste, although less seagoing.

Anyway, since then it's been regulations, regulations, regulations when it comes to security. And as a result, it's a case of 'No minister' when it comes to iPhones. Chances are, if they want an iPad they'll probably get an Etch A Sketch.

Since the HMRC cock-up the government has been frantically putting in place security measures to ensure the disaster doesn't happen again, like making civil servants complete courses with questions like 'if a complete stranger asks you to give him your data, what should you do?'. At the end of the course you get a certificate to stick above your desk, which is nice, but does it improve security?

Still on the subject of security, it's not just Her Majesty's civil servants and slash-and-burn ministers who aren't to be trusted.

The general populace is so careless with computer security and keeping passwords secret it's a wonder our bank accounts aren't being hacked left, right and centre leaving us to huddle destitute on the streets.

Security company F-Secure claims that while many people have established secure password habits a surprisingly large number still rely on just one password for all their needs.

The survey said about 20 per cent of web users in Germany, Sweden and the UK use the same passwords for everything - including credit cards, online banking, email and secure websites.

About 20 per cent write their password on a piece of paper. Probably kept near their computer. Possibly with the word 'password' written on it. Don't chortle too loudly, the Round-Up's seen it done.

Another F-Secure survey revealed that, on average, only about half of mobile phone users protect their phones with a password.

Germans are the most security conscious with 68 per cent protecting data on their phones with passwords. The British (27 per cent) and Americans (13 per cent) lag far behind in terms of safe mobile phone use.

This is not a good state of affairs given that the web is overrun by nefarious ne'er-do-wells just itching to steal your personal data.

The problem with trying to remember lots of passwords for different services is captured in another handy stat from F-Secure's survey - eight per cent of people surveyed have to reset their passwords frequently because they forget them so easily. It suggests that we create passwords that are good and strong, unique and can't be guessed. Try 'moononastick' if you can't think of your own.

Ignoring the Round-Up, F-Secure's experts persisted with this tip. Start by creating (and remembering) a small string that remains the same for all your passwords, in other words a pin number.

You can remember your passwords through writing a part of it down - based on a code such as aMa for your Amazon password, followed by a random string of four characters then add your pin to the end whenever you want to log on. Don't write your pin down. Hey presto - online security is secured.

Once you've put this system in place you promptly lose the piece of paper you wrote the other half of all your passwords on and start again.

Failing that, you can take your chances with "123456"...

Finally this week, if you're reading this you probably have a background in technology.

At some point in your past, you may well have been asked to write a computer program, some of those programs may have been quite odd.

The Round-Up's guessing it won't be as odd as a filter apparently being developed for video chat website Chatroulette.

The idea behind Chatroulette is like video speed-dating over the web. If you don't like what you see then you click 'next' to switch to the next chat.

Chatroulette's problem is that the site is becoming overrun with people - men to be precise - revealing a little too much about themselves, or rather of themselves.

To deal with this problem the site may turn to technology to save the day. According to a report on TechCrunch, the service is considering developing software that can quickly scan video to check for the offending... item, so the offending video can then be skipped over.

It is hoped that if an algorithm can be developed Chatroulette may be able to make connections between people who want to talk to each other. On the other hand, it may be that people are visiting the site in their millions precisely to goggle at the thousands of men on it exposing themselves.

Best of luck to Chatroulette with its thingy-blocking algorithm. But have a little sympathy for the poor programmer who has to devise that program - particularly when it comes to testing it.