MPs urge government to rethink tech policies after deletion of data from locked Treasury phones

Written by Beckie Smith on 22 July 2021 in News
News

Recently published data revealed that more than 100 devices were wiped after staff forgot their passcode

Credit: Kate Ter Haar/CC BY 2.0 - Image has been cropped

A committee of MPs has urged the government to review its policies and use of IT after it emerged more than 100 Treasury mobile phones were wiped last year because users forgot their passcodes.

The Treasury Committee has called for the review after the department’s permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar recently MPs his own device had to be reset after he forgot his PIN code – resulting in it being wiped.

As a result, he was unable to hand over text messages he sent to David Cameron during the time the former prime minister was attempting to lobby him on behalf of the supply-chain finance firm Greensill Capital.

Scholar did, however, tell the MPs he had transferred copies of “any messages of substance” he had received on the phone to the official government record. The messages sent to Cameron were also subsequently published after the former PM provided them.


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A freedom of information request also later revealed that 117 phones held by Treasury officials had been reset last year because of passcode errors.

In a report yesterday on lessons from the Greensill lobbying scandal, the MPs said they were “concerned that it appears that government records, held on the phone of the Treasury’s permanent secretary, are subject to deletion based on lapses of his memory”.

They said that while the perm sec had “acted correctly” in transferring messages to the official record, a review is needed “to prevent the complete deletion of government records by the misremembering of a password to a phone, given that this may be a wider problem”.

“Though we have absolutely no reason to believe it in this case, the wiping of information under these kind of circumstances could have the unfortunate consequence of leading some to the suspect it to be deliberate,” the report said. “To be very clear, the committee does not believe this to be the case in respect of the permanent secretary.”

The MPs also used the report to address concerns about how the text messages were released.

Since they had been deleted from Scholar’s phone, the MPs asked the perm sec to give Cameron permission to share the texts to aid their inquiry.

Instead of doing so, Scholar said he would ask Cameron to share the messages with the Treasury, which he said would then release them under the Freedom of Information Act “in the usual way”. He said this was because “the information that we are talking about is government information, and it just so happens that we do not currently hold it”.

They said while the release was welcome, they found the argument that only the Treasury should publish the records held by Cameron “unconvincing”.

“First, these records were no longer government records, since they had been deleted. Secondly, a committee’s powers to call for persons, papers and records are exercised independently of the Freedom of Information Act,” the report said.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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