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BlackBerrys grounded by Whitehall data ban

Government electronic devices, including PDAs and mobiles, have been withdrawn during a ban on the movement of unencrypted personal data
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Government BlackBerry devices and PDAs have been grounded by the Whitehall-wide ban on the movement of unencrypted personal data.

The devices have fallen foul of the department-wide ban imposed by cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell in the wake of the revelations about the Ministry of Defence data loss last month that resulted from a stolen laptop.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that any government electronic device, even down to a mobile phone, would have to have any personal data encrypted before it could leave Whitehall premises.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: "The ban applies to any mobile device with storage capacity that contains personal data. There are systems in place and various workarounds that people are using to avoid work being disrupted."

The ban does not affect RIM's BlackBerry enterprise version (4.0 and above), which has been certified by CESG as secure enough to carry "restricted"-level documents — the only PDA device that has been — and so can still be used by civil servants to carry and access personal data without the need for further encryption.

Not all government BlackBerrys meet this standard, however. The Cabinet Office said: "It is up to the [individual] departments to decide which employees require a certified BlackBerry and which can make do with a normal one."

The Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Ministry of Defence would not reveal how many portable devices were temporarily out of action but the Government Car and Despatch Agency has withdrawn 14 PDAs.

But other government departments have developed workarounds to minimise the disruption caused by the lockdown.

The Cabinet Office said government departments were prioritising the encryption process so the most heavily used machines were brought back into use first.

A DWP spokeswoman said its officials are working on overcoming problems caused by the ban.

She said: "For our customers it's been business as usual, as services have been unaffected. The temporary suspension has led to minor delays in some of our back-office work; however, these are now being cleared."

Last month, defence secretary Des Browne admitted that three MoD laptops containing around 600,000 details of servicemen and recruits have been stolen since 2005. In addition, figures obtained by the Conservatives claim the department has lost a total of 347 laptops since 2004.

Sir Edmund Burton, chairman of the Information Advisory Council, is examining weaknesses in the MoD data security procedures and there is an ongoing cross-government review of data handling following the loss by HM Revenue & Customs of 25 million child-benefit claimants' details in the post.

The government has suffered a catalogue of embarrassing security breaches, which includes the NHS losing hundreds of thousands of patients' records, the DVLA losing three million learner drivers' details and the loss of more than 4,000 patient details by primary-care trusts in Stockport and Oldham.

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