Whitehall urged to curb civil servants' snooping

Whitehall departments have been urged to tighten their approach to internal security to ensure civil servants are only accessing...

Whitehall departments have been urged to tighten their approach to internal security to ensure civil servants are only accessing the files they are allowed to.

The call came after it emerged that hundreds of civil servants were disciplined last year for accessing confidential computer files were not entitled to read.

The Inland Revenue was among the worst offenders, with 322 staff disciplined last year for breaking rules on internet, computer and e-mail use. Of these, 146 were found guilty of "unauthorised access" and four of "unauthorised disclosure". In contrast, the Ministry of Defence reported only two cases last year.

In the seven years to 2003, the Revenue investigated 1,369 cases of suspected computer misuse, more than 1,100 of which resulted in disciplinary action.

Mike Davis, senior research analyst at Butler Group, said the figures indicate that management of staff needs to be improved.

"All of us, if we had access to systems that contained our records or those of our friends, would be tempted," he said. "Training and awareness of staff needs to be increased so it is very clear what is not allowed."

Although it is largely a management and process issue, technology can help to authenticate users, Davis said.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesman, told Computer Weekly, "My concerns are two-fold - there is the snooping aspect and the threat of viruses. Filtering could be the solution, but we might have to go down the route of doing spot checks on PCs."

Last year, Computer Weekly  revealed that the Inland Revenue had warned staff who were waiting for their tax credits to be paid not to check their records on the department's IT systems.

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