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Email and Skype communications were disrupted for up to one-third of staff, MPs and peers in Parliament last week, after Microsoft’s cloud-based email system partially collapsed.
After a week of investigations, Microsoft has been unable to provide an explanation for the problem, which affected up to 2,000 people working in both houses of Parliament.
Staff began complaining of emails vanishing on Monday 22 June, after the email and communications links from Parliament to Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud service failed.
The problems follow a series of failures last year, when mistakes by a unnamed IT supplier left MPs, peers and staff in Westminster struggling with crashing web browsers and slow emails.
The Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) team, which provides IT and internet services for both houses, along with specialists from Microsoft’s premier support team spent much of the week grappling with the latest email problems, which led to queues 30 deep on the Parliament’s IT helpdesk.
A series of email updates, obtained by Computer Weekly, revealed that it took specialists from Microsoft and Parliament three days to fix the email system.
Rob Sanders, acting director of operations and member services at PDS, wrote to members of both houses at lunchtime on Tuesday 23 June, offering assurances that work was underway to restore email services.
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“We are continuing to experience issues with some Outlook and mobile device connections to the email service. The issue is intermittent and the PDS technical teams are working with Microsoft to resolve the problem,” he wrote.
In a later update, Sanders apologised for the disruption the problems were causing. “We are still working closely with Microsoft to identify and resolve the email connection issue, and we fully appreciate this is continuing to impact some of you,” he wrote. “We are getting closer to pinpointing where the issue is, having ruled out a number of possible causes through our investigations so far.”
Parliamentary IT and Microsoft staff worked round the clock on the issue, but were unable to discover the cause of the missing emails, Computer Weekly has established.
“At the time of writing, the service is working again, although Microsoft has not yet made any changes to permanently resolve the problem. Until this happens, it is possible that the symptoms could re-appear,” Sanders warned.
Microsoft managed to restore email services by the afternoon of Wednesday 24 June, but was still struggling to identify the cause of the problem, prompting a further email from Sanders on Thursday.
25,000 UK citizens apply to see their Prism stolen data
Privacy International – the London-based privacy body which tries to hold the spooks to account and which got a judgement from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) recently to the effect that GCHQ’s use of Prism, the US spying programme, was unlawful – has been over whelmed by its success.
Expecting just a few people to ask to see their stolen data, Privacy International is now facing a huge problem: 25,000 people have applied to get their data.
The IPT has refused to accept a bulk application and Privacy International is negotiating how it and the IPT will handle 25,000 individual applications. The huge response belies the idea that people in the UK are not much concerned about privacy.
“Last night, Microsoft successfully completed a health check on our relevant connection services to Office 365, following the full return of email access in the afternoon. However, it has not identified the root cause of the issue,” he wrote.
“I can assure you that we will continue to work with Microsoft to understand what caused the issue and make any necessary changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This is likely to take some time. I would like to apologise once again for the disruption yesterday; I fully appreciate how critical the Office365 service is to you,” he said.
Parliament moved its email services over to Microsoft following a two-year trial, described as a move to reduce its IT costs and provide staff, MPs and peers with email access on mobile devices.
The latest problems follow concerns over the security of Parliamentary emails – which are held on Microsoft’s servers in Dublin – from foreign governments.
Assurances by former foreign secretary William Hague that Parliamentary communications are protected from collection by the US National Security Agency have been called into question, after a US court found Microsoft in contempt for refusing to hand over emails from its Irish servers to the US government.
Sanders told Computer Weekly that the Parliamentary ICT Service still did not know what caused the latest problem, but would be meeting Microsoft to try to resolve the issue. Microsoft has not responded to requests for information.
Max Schrems and the late judgement
The judgement never came, and is not now expected until mid-September. This is highly convenient for the US-EU negotiations relating to Safe Harbour, the transatlantic agreement that allows US companies to transfer data from the EU to the US on the basis of reciprocal safeguards. This agreement is due to be renewed by the two major powers at the end of the month.
Schrems told Computer Weekly that his lawyers had received no information as to the cause of the delay. A court spokesman said some judgements, but not many, were delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. He said the advocate general, due to read the judgement, might have been “over-optimistic” on timings.