Whitehall steps into cyberspace

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The Independent Online
The Government will next month launch the first stage of a giant classified information network linking half a million civil servants across the country. Ian Burrell reports on steps being taken to ensure that the system does not allow state secrets to fall into the wrong hands.

In the London offices of one of the Government's least-known agencies, the Central Information Technology Unit, research is under way which will revolutionise the workings of British government.

With the help of computer giant Microsoft, a system is being devised to enable the country's 497,000 civil servants to communicate with each other electronically.

Known as the "Government Intranet" it will be Britain's biggest internal computer system. Civil servants will be encouraged to use it to correspond with members of the public by e-mail.

David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who as the head of the Cabinet Office is overseeing the project, told The Independent: "Our ultimate aim is to give seamless service to the citizen. We can only do that by departments working together ... using the latest in information technology."

But he admitted that strenuous efforts are having to be taken to ensure that classified information is not intercepted by unauthorised parties. "We have done two years of extensive testing and are convinced the system is secure," he said.

Officials are working to ensure that even highly classified material can be transmitted electronically in an encrypted form. This will inevitably lead to the end of the ministerial red box, now regarded as too heavy to carry around and susceptible to breaches of security. Ministers have already been forbidden from taking them onto public transport.

CITU is developing a prototype "electronic red box" made up of a laptop computer, linked to an encrypting device. The electronic boxes are likely to be issued to ministers in the new year, and the intranet should link all state buildings by the end of next year.

But the government is also aware that the system could lead to fears that it could become the antennae for an all-knowing Big Brother-style government. Officials have held meetings with Elizabeth France, the Data Protection Registrar, to assure her that no privacy safeguards will be breached.

Next month, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, will launch the first stage of the new network with a scheme which will enable the public to send official forms to different government departments electronically and simultaneously.

People registering themselves as self-employed for the first time will be able to transmit a single form - either from their personal computer, through a digital television set or British Telecom touchpoint. Previously applicants had to fill out five separate forms.

The CITU is also working with NatWest and Barclays banks to ensure that electronic documents can be given "digital signatures" using cashpoint- style cards and PIN numbers.

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