What the Papers Say

It appears that a police officer has inadvertently disclosed operational notes regarding arrangements for the arrest of Julian Assange. This is not the first time a blunder like this has happened, and it should serve as a reminder that physical data needs to handled just as securely as electronic data.

In 2009 Britain’s then most senior counter-terrorism officer, Bob Quick, arrived at Downing Street for an important meeting. He’d probably been reading up on the issues during the journey there, and was clutching a file as he emerged from his car. Unfortunately for him, photographers were able to capture the contents of the document he was holding face up. Marked “Secret” (the second highest category in the government protective marking Security Policy Framework) it contained information some of which still cannot be disclosed because a DA-Notice applies. It led to anti-terror raids being brought forward, and it also led to his resignation.

Now we learn that a rather less senior police officer has been photographed in similar circumstances, outside the Ecuadorian Embassy wherein lies the persecuted activist/suspected rapist (delete according to your leanings) Julian Assange. Apparently the information relates to possible arrest plans.

Now, when I have to carry papers from one building to another at work, I make damn sure that they’re secured in an opaque binder, and as far as I know the eyes of the world’s press are not on me when I’m doing so. Information security and data protection are not just about taking care with electronic data: I recently did a quick analysis of the monetary penalty notices handed down by the Information Commissioner, and found that around two-thirds arose from a breach of security involving physical data*.

Modern photographic developments mean that millions of people have the ability quickly to capture compromising or damaging information, and internet publishing means that the same information can be uploaded and circulated within seconds. The European Association for Visual Data Security (yep, there is one) recently produced a white paper on the subject. In its article about the white paper The Register gave some examples of shoulder-surfing, in addition to Bob Quick’s infamous incident

a senior UK civil servant at the department of Business, Innovation and Skills fell asleep on a commuter train, leaving highly sensitive information displayed on his screen. A fellow passenger took two photographs of the information while it was displayed on the screen, which made their way into a Daily Mail story about the breach…[and] in August 2011 the UK’s International Development Secretary was photographed leaving Number 10 Downing Street with sensitive government papers relating to Afghanistan on display. These papers were caught on camera by news photographers and film crews.

Any organisation which needs to handle data outside its own office walls should make very sure it can’t be seen by prying eyes.




*It’s difficult accurately to categorise them. For instance, a fax is both electronic and physical, and a lost hard-drive is loss of physical data, but seriousness is tied to the electronic contents of said drive.

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Filed under Confidentiality, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, police, Uncategorized

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