The secret of the ministers' new red box

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The days of the government Red Box piled with ministerial homework are about to end - replaced by a hi-tech, talking, listening laptop computer which identifies its owners by their fingerprints.

The intention is to replace the many boxes of paperwork that ministers have to carry back and forth.

The old ones, in use since the days of Gladstone, can carry the equivalent of two telephone directories of paper, and ministers can have six or more to carry around. The new computer versions weigh less than one full box, but can carry many times the contents of the old boxes electronically on their hard disk.

The new system took only a few months to devise, and was produced at the instigation of John Battle, the science and energy minister whose bad back makes it painful to carry full red boxes.

David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for government Information Technology strategy, unveiled the prototype "new box" yesterday, amidst assurances that it contains security that would defeat even the most determined hacker.

The machine is cleared to carry top-secret information. It will not work until a chip-carrying signet ring, which generates an encryption "key", is connected - and then a fingerprint ("from a warm finger", according to a Cabinet Office spokesman) must be tendered for access: dismantling the machine would simply reveal a machine whose hard disk was scrambled beyond decryption.

The box, which consists of a Dell laptop computer, then speaks to the user with the voice of a "female middle- ranking Southern Counties civil servant" (whose identity is being kept secret).

The "contents" of the box are then spread out over a standard "desktop" on screen - defeating a technique used by civil servants of slipping things past ministers by putting them at the end of a deep box of otherwise boring material.

It also contains software which can translate speech into typed text, with "sticky" notes to be attached to documents. When the minister has finished with it, the revised contents can be loaded back on to the government network. That can even be done over telephone lines, because the electronic scrambling cannot be broken by existing computers. Any papers which need signing can be printed out on paper.

Each box will cost about pounds 2,400, including software, while each minister should only need one or two. At present there can be up to a dozen red boxes in a minister's office.