April 2, 2009

Man, I am glad that I am not the mail admin involved here

If you have been following the news in the U.K the latest political hot potato surrounds the Prime Ministers (former) Political Press Officer (which is a fairly high position within Government outside of the cabinet) Damian McBride.

It would seem that Mr McBride had written a number of e-mails which contained less than accurate statements about senior figures within the opposition party (the leader of the opposition – David Cameron, and George Osbourne).
Mr McBride (allegedly) sent these e-mails from his official Number 10 downing street account to at least one person within the Labour party (perhaps his first mistake) with main named recipient being a Mr Derek Draper (whom apparently at the time was trying to gather content for a Labour supporting political blog which could complete one of the leading Anti Government blogs “The Guido Fawkes” blog).

Now the problem for Mr McBride and Mr Draper started when the editor of the aforementioned Guido Fawkes blog managed to get hold of the said e-mails and published them, resulting in Mr McBride having to stand down from his post (resign), fury from the opposition party demanding apologies from the Prime Minister and of course more embarrassment for an already beleaguered in power Labour party.

Now I am not about to go into a fine detailed analysis of the politics contained within this situation as 1) I am no expert in Politics 2) This is not a Political blog – but the whole situation does raise an interesting scenario of e-mail within the very power houses which govern us and is there a lesson the be learned here for all of us?

For example – I would have thought that the Prime Minister would (perhaps at this stage) be very interested to know more about the lifecycle of these mails as Mr McBride himself said in his resignation statement:

I am shocked and appalled that, however they were obtained, these e-mails have been put into the public domain by Paul Staines” (sic the owner of The Guido Fawkes blog)

I have to admit, if it were myself I would also be very interested to know how an official Downing Street e-mail – sent to internal recipients managed to make it into external hands.

Now I am not excusing Mr McBride and the like from their actions, whether they intended to use the mails or not – but one has to agree – if e-mail like the above can leak out of downing street, what else could?

Then again one could argue if you do not want to have something come back and bite you – don’t put it down in e-mail. As technologies have advanced over the last 5 years or so – the likely hood of an e-mail that you sent 9 years ago being produced and used against you is much more of a realism – especially if you work for the government (the 2000 Freedom of Information Act for example) places expectations on Government based departments to take steps to ensure that data can be produced for public inspection.

What are the scenarios to be considered here?

  • The (or A) recipient sent the mail on to someone else whom then passed it on to the wider press? – no doubt a breach of protocol
  • A mail item was misaddressed – unlikely – things would have come to light sooner
  • Or the worst case scenario someone at the back end sent it on (one of the mail administrators) – unlikely as in that position the Security Clearance is sky high

What is for certain is that there must be one very busy mail administrator(s) at the moment reviewing tracking logs, Journals and Mail Store vaults to establish (if not for the public) for the internal powers that be exactly where this mail went after it arrived with Mr Draper. One of course hopes that all the logs are where they are supposed to be and have not been purged – I remember Bharat Suneja posting an interesting article http://exchangepedia.com/blog/2007/04/email-archiving-and-compliance-learning.html based upon around 5 million e-mail vanishing during a “migration” from the Whitehouse in April 2007 – one hopes that it does not transpire that a similar “upgrade” was taking place within Whitehall when this story broke as it would do little for the reputation of the Government. One would assume (from personal experience) that if everything is where is should be tracking the course of the said mails should be reasonably easy.

But then again – there is the possibility that these items were printed out – and “left somewhere” – that is normally a good explanation for such a breach – if it were not for the fact that mail systems used in central government are subject to item classification – Top Secret, Secret, Eyes Only for example – just by printing the item does not negate its classification.

Mind you, looking at this from the other side of the fence – it could be considered irrelevant now if the Government could track how the e-mail got into the public domain – they still have the situation where one of its members used e-mail in a way where the reputation of the company (in this case the United Kingdom PLC) has been brought into disrepute – so two issues for them to consider going forward:

  • How do you now prevent leaks in your system?
  • How do you regulate the content that employees place in legally admissible material?

Policies I hear you all say! – however we need to consider that the Government will have policies for such situations verbatim – I have no doubt that Whitehall have watertight acceptable usage Frameworks for everything (including mail) – but it did not stop this situation arising – and one has to consider – given the damage that has been done – was one resignation acceptable?

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