The cybersnoops are always one step ahead of ministers

 

Most people would assume – and certainly hope – that the emails of a serving Chancellor could not be read by a newspaper looking for a story.

Because if a journalist can access someone like Gordon Brown's personal correspondence just imagine what the Chinese are reading. During the past few years, the Government has invested millions of pounds trying to ensure its communications are as secure from interception as possible. But two glaring problems remain. The first is that while the Government can secure its own communications it cannot secure the communications of those it corresponds with.

Every time a minister writes an email to anyone outside Whitehall that correspondence is vulnerable from the moment it arrives in the recipient's inbox.

They do not have access to the kind of security available to members of the Government and are probably as lax with passwords and other basic precautions as the rest of us. The second security flaw is even more significant. Many ministers have started using their personal internet-based email accounts as a way of communicating beyond the reach of their civil servants and the Freedom of Information Act. We know Michael Gove used his personal email to correspond with his advisers about departmental business and anyone sending an email to David Cameron's adviser, Steve Hilton, gets an automatic response saying he does not use his government email. Given that Mr Hilton is a technology junkie, it makes you wonder how he is communicating.

All this makes ministers vulnerable to pretty basic interception. It also explains why the police are taking the allegations that Mr Brown's emails were intercepted so seriously. While the contents of such emails – perhaps discussing his relationship with Tony Blair, how to deal with the financial crisis or attack David Cameron – may only be of historical interest what is being written by ministers now has greater pertinence. A newspaper getting hold of it might be the least of their worries.

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