Ministers defeated by new hi-tech red boxes

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THE COMPUTERISED ministerial "red boxes" - hailed as the answer to modern government communications - have been scrapped, because the ministers cannot operate the prototypes.

The hi-tech machines, based on lap-top computers, required a minister's fingerprint to access government documents. But, following trials, they have been rejected because they are too complicated to use, too heavy and not secure enough to store classified documents.

The computers were launched with much fanfare last year as the modern answer to the Gladstonian ministerial red box. Prototype "new boxes", which included a welcome message from a sultry-voiced female civil servant, were launched to a televised fanfare and predictions that ministers would be carrying them by last Christmas.

The computers contained software to translate speech into typed text, but ministers complained that the computer sometimes misinterpreted words and typed the wrong message. They also had problems using the computer's electronic signature, preferring to authorise documents by hand.

"The original red box had all these security devices," said a spokesman. "The ministers did find [the new ones] pretty heavy. Electronic signatures were one of the things they were looking at. It was experimental and there won't be any further design work."

Advisers from GCHQ had warned the Government that classified documents could not be stored in the new box because of the risk from hacking - although the machine's hard disk was "scrambled". The red boxes were developed at a cost of pounds 10,000 by civil servants and the Defence Evaluation Research Agency, which created the security systems, including a secure internet link.

The pounds 2,400 boxes replaced originals which can carry the equivalent of two telephone directories of paper. Ministers often have six or more, containing top-secret briefing papers and letters to sign, to carry around.

Civil servants have been known to place documents in a certain order to obtain the decision they want, often slipping vital documents to the bottom of the box if they want to delay a decision.

Norma Major once complained that her husband's boxes were scattered around the house, including her bedroom.

The computerised system was produced last year at the instigation of John Battle, the science and energy minister, whose bad back made it painful to carry full red boxes around. David Clark, who was then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for Government information technology strategy, unveiled the prototype, assuring the public that it contained security that would defeat even the most determined hacker.

Each minister was required to carry round an "encryption key" to decipher the scrambled information on the system.

One government source said: "It was so advanced that the people who were supposed to be using it - the ministers - couldn't even get in.

"All those fingerprint signatures and the James Bond stuff just slowed things down. It drove them mad."

Now ministers have settled for e-mailing one another with normal lap- tops.