Tales from the Crypt

If you don’t work in local government, you may never have encountered the Local Government Ombudsman, an organisation devoted to giving nutcases somewhere to grind their axes investigating possible maladministration in councils. The scope of the LGO’s work includes everything that councils do, but inevitably many complaints are about the most sensitive areas: child protection, looked after children, adoption, and adult social care. In dealing with complaints from the public, the LGO gets access to genuinely and (in Data Protection terms) legally sensitive information. Inevitably, given that councils have been the target of more ICO civil monetary penalties than any other sector, largely because councils are dumb enough to keep dobbing themselves in to Wilmslow, many are keen to use the most secure way of sending this confidential data to the Ombudsman.

It may seem odd, therefore, that the LGO sent an email to councils last month, containing the following message:

Encrypt or not to encrypt – that is the question …..

We’ve had a number of issues accessing encrypted emails which have been sent to us by councils. Whilst we appreciate that your information security policy may dictate how you send information to us, if there is any discretion please only send encrypted emails when it’s absolutely necessary.

Someone mentioned the gist of it to me, but I made an FOI request to the LGO to be certain that they really were sending out such a daft message. The LGO’s Information and Records Manager rather sweetly explained in their response to me that “our intention in sending this request was discourage councils encrypting emails that contain no sensitive personal or confidential data. Of course, if councils are sending sensitive personal data we would expect them to encrypt it – as we would do ourselves“. This is a useful piece of context for someone asking for the information under the auspices of FOI. However, this isn’t what they said to the numerous council link officers who received the email, and who were expected to act upon its contents. It’s almost the opposite.

Encrypting devices within an organisation is an easier proposition, as all the devices and connecting software are already part of the same system. The problem with encrypting email is undoubtedly that it involves different systems and protocols butting heads in the attempt to make a connection. The LGO pointed out to me that their case management system contains its own email system which can make receipt of an encrypted email difficult. But this is the LGO’s problem and nobody else’s. Councils have no choice about whether to supply data – one of the ‘key facts’ about the LGO on their website is that “We have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents“. Given the ICO’s historic fondness for fining the sector for data security lapses, if councils opt for encryption by default, they should be applauded, especially by the organisation set up to investigate their conduct.

This will inevitably pose problems for the LGO internally, but the solution to this is not to encourage councils to reverse sensible changes in behaviour that another regulator has been pushing them into. They are a regulator whose job it is to deal with a diverse and multilayered sector with widely disparate cultures and practices, and they have to be capable of swallowing the inconvenient implications of it this. However difficult it might be to cope with, especially without the clarification provided to me in my FOI response (and as far as I know, to no-one else), the LGO’s current advice is damaging and unsafe. Councils should ignore it, and the LGO should withdraw it.

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