Ministers have been banned from taking iPads into Cabinet meetings amid fears that the devices could be used to spy upon them.
Intelligence agencies fear foreign spooks may have developed the ability to turn tablets and mobile phones into eavesdropping devices without the owner’s knowledge.
The Daily Mail revealed how the security team at 10 Downing Street became rather nervous during a Cabinet meeting last week.
The meeting, briefing ministers on how better use of technology could save the taxpayer billions, was hosted by Mike Bracken, a Cabinet Office minister and the Government Digital Service chief. The iPads were used in the presentation which was designed to show how the GDS could makes savings of close to £2 billion per year.
As the meeting ended with claps all round, the security team came in and snaffled all the iPads, presumably fearing that China may be keen on stealing the secret of how to save a few renminbi on digital services.
Senior government figures fear that countries including China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan may have developed Trojans which would allow iPads and other mobile-enabled devices to be used as transmitters, even when they are switched off.
In addition to banning iPads from Cabinet meetings, ministers in departments dealing with information thought to be especially sensitive have been issued with lead-lined and sound-proofed boxes, within which they have to store their communications equipment whilst holding high-security conversations.
The possibility of other nations spying on UK officials is nothing new of course – only last week allegations emerged that suggested that Russian operatives gave out ‘poisoned’ USB sticks and phone chargers at the end of September’s G20 summit in St Petersbug.
Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, reportedly asked technical experts in Germany and Belgium to test the devices, after which a secret memo was issued:
“The USB pen drives and the recharging cables were able to covertly capture computer and mobile phone data.”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, may have shared those concerns as he revealed that his own mobile phone has been modified by Britain’s finest in order to prevent him from being spied upon. He said:
“I think my phone has been modified by GCHQ enough that it’d be difficult, but I’m sure the Chinese have had a good go.”
However, some high-ranking officials in the British government haven’t seemed to be so security-aware recently.
The Guardian claimed that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude set up his own Wi-Fi network in his Westminster office after becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s own IT systems (I find this somewhat ironic given all the recent accusations about Britain being near the forefront of global surveillance – perhaps he should have known better?).
Trend Micro’s Rik Ferguson said,
“If he really has ‘installed his own Wi-Fi’ … then that network segment will not be configured, managed or audited by security experts in the House of Commons, rendering them blind to the the risks it represents.
Actions like those of Mr Maude demonstrate, yet again, that it’s not only the bad guys you have to worry about.”