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Epidemic of UK Data Breaches Continues Unabated

The London Telegraph reported over the weekend that nine National Health Service (NHS) trusts have admitting to losing over 168,000 patient records. The NHS says that its nothing to worry about since the security of the information went "way beyond" that used for internet banking. However, it also conceded today that it did not know exactly the details of the patient information lost, nor how it was lost.

Those two statements give one confidence, don't they?

In other news, the Royal Mail admitted that last month it sent pension information to the wrong addresses. About 5,500 pensioners in the Leeds area using Post Office card accounts (POCA) have been told that they may have received someone else's information. Post Office officials also said they think only about 120 people actually may have received the wrong information, but they, too, can't be sure.

Regardless, officials said, "The Post Office and its suppliers have apologised for this mistake, customers will be sent their correct statement shortly."

IRS Wastes $3.5 million on ID-Card Program

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The Washington Post reported today that the Internal Revenue Service Inspector General released an audit that found that the IRS wasted $3.5 million on a new personnel identification system project required to meet Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-12 Initiative. The projected cost of the project is $421 million over 14 years, and so far around $30 million has been obligated to it.

Among the waste noted in the audit report was $1,940,397 spent on a computer security system that the IRS now doesn't plan to use; $431,035 to establish and maintain an identification badge laboratory to create a test environment for issuing identification badges but the laboratory has now been closed and is deemed unnecessary, and; $188,160 paid to a contractor for 1 person billed at $128 per hour to provide clerical support (e.g., maintaining calendars and meetings, processing trip reports, etc.) over an 11-month period.

The audit said that the contract "statements of work were not specific enough to identify the deliverables and were too general to track the program's work requirements effectively." In other words, the contractors had every incentive to deliver useless services at the highest costs possible.

Cost Overruns Plague UK Public Sector IT Projects

ComputerWeekly reports that a study published by the European Services Strategy Unit claims that the majority of the 105 outsourced public sector Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects they looked into had significant cost overruns, delays and or terminations. The 105 projects had a total contract value of £29.5 billion with cost overruns totaling £9.0 billion. Within these 105 projects, 57% of contracts experienced cost overruns with the average percentage cost overrun being 30.5%. Some 33% of contracts suffered major delays while 30% of contracts were terminated.

One reason for the problems encountered was that public sector officials often only focus on the procurement stage of projects, without considering the cost of implementation and training, while another was that the private sector contractors overstate their ability to deliver and underestimate the complexity of public service provision.

One more study to add to the dozens of others all depressingly finding the same thing.

Snooping at the IRS

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The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported a few days ago that there has been an increase in the number of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees illegally looking at confidential taxpayer info. As the WSJ says, "Although the number of browsing cases is tiny compared with the IRS's overall work force, the number went up in the latest year. Officials at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, say they opened 521 investigations in fiscal 2007, up from 448 the prior year -- and the highest since a 1998 taxpayer-privacy law was enacted."

"During the latest year, there were 219 "adverse administrative actions" against IRS workers, including firings and suspensions, a TIGTA official says. That's up sharply from 104 such actions the prior year."

No word from the UK on the number of HM Revenue & Custom employees who have been caught snooping on UK taxpayers.

Seattle Bus Tunnel Computer Still Out

Seattle's newly renovated downtown bus tunnel will remain closed through Friday (UPDATE: now Monday, 24 December; UPDATE 2: Make that 26 December; UPDATE 3: Make that until further notice; UPDATE: Opens on 27 December.) due to a computer malfunction, reports the Seattle Times.

According to the Times story, "Sound Transit, which recently led a tunnel-retrofit project, found suspected flaws in two or three circuit boards and will also replace five or six similar boards, said its light-rail director, Ahmad Fazel. Replacement boards were being flown to Seattle Wednesday night, he said."

"Fazel said the Seattle tunnel controls include a backup mode. But, he said, the flawed circuit boards were staying "on" even after they failed, disrupting the backup program, he said. Manual controls exist at each of the tunnel's five stations, but without the computer system, the stations would not be united, he said."

Updates on AMT, DC Tax Fraud & UK ID Messes

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A few updates on a couple of earlier blogs.

Well, first, Congress has passed an Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch for one year. However, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. said that tax refunds will still likely be delayed because Internal Revenue Service (IRS) computers need to be reprogrammed - guesses are a best case three week delay, seven weeks for the expected case, and a worst case scenario of ten weeks. But because the patch expires at the end of 2008, we get to go through this all over again next year.

A new story in the Washington Post indicates that the DC tax scam may have started in 1990. So now the scam looks like it has been going on for possibly seventeen years, instead of the nine years last believed, which was an update from seven years which itself was a revision of the three year time frame first thought. No one now is even hazarding a guess about how much money was pilfered.

Finally, the London Telegraph reported today that "details of thousands of doctors, including religious beliefs and sexual orientation" were available to anyone logging on to the Medical Training Application Service site. Given almost the daily disclosures, one wonders how many more data breaches exist throughout UK government organizations.

The Telegraph also reported this week that "Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has advised ministers to toughen the penalties for improper disclosure of personal data after reviewing the way Whitehall departments deal with sensitive information." The penalties suggested includes jail time for civil servants.

Big IT Troubles at DHS

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In the first of a three-part series on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), BusinessWeek notes that some $3 billion in DHS information technology contracts, "accounting for 60% of the agency's 2008 IT budget, are underperformingâ''whether because they're behind schedule, over budget, or lack a qualified project manager or definable parameters. In dollar terms, Homeland Security accounts for about half of the troubled government IT projects tracked by the Office of Management & Budget (OMB)."

The article goes on to quote Clark Ervin, who was DHS Inspector General from January 2003 to December 2004: "When these contracts go awry, it's not just a question of millions of dollars or tens of millions or billions of dollars wasted, but it also means that the security gaps that those contracts are intended to address are left unaddressed." (Listen to an interview Ervin did with IEEE Spectrum last year.)

DHS says not to worry, though, because "great progress" is being made in getting the challenges posed under control.

Computer Problems Do In Seattle's Bus Tunnel Operations

Seattle's newly renovated downtown bus tunnel has been shut down for the second time this week due to a computer malfunction, reports the Seattle Times. The tunnel reopened for weekday bus service on Monday, Sept. 24, 2007.

According to the Times story, "All of the systems in the tunnel â'' such as ventilation, lighting and signals â'' are controlled by a computer system installed during the recent retrofit of the tunnel. The computer is based at Sound Transit's new operations center in Sodo."

The tunnel handles 1,076 bus trips on 18 routes on a typical weekday.

There is no word as to when the tunnel will be re-opened.

LAUSD Payroll System: From $95 million to $210 million

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The LA Daily News reported on Sunday that the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) officials are now saying that its botched and blundered payroll system will likely cost upwards of $210 million when all is said and done. And if it is like any of the previous estimates, it is probably low by $25 to 35 million.

What's more, the newly estimated cost figure does not seem to include the $6 million in noncollectable over-payments to employees, the cost of its image consultants hired to put on a positive spin to the failure, and all the ancillary costs involved in correcting the payroll errors by everyone involved.

LAUSD officials furthermore say that to get to their projected error rate of 0.5 percent of monthly certified paychecks, teachers will have to give up the ability to get annualized pay (i.e., receiving twelve paychecks a year, instead of ten). This has not gone over well, since teachers fought for 25 years to get this benefit which was introduced only this past February when the new payroll system was introduced. The excuse for not doing so for the previous two decades plus was that the old payroll system couldn't compute the pay properly, but everyone was confident that the new and improved payroll system could. Well, it appears the new one can't either - I didn't know computers had problems normalizing using the number 12 as a base.

LAUSD officials also admit that they were over-optimistic, didn't know the project risks involved, did improper planning, scheduling and budgeting, etc., etc., but funny enough, they are having a hard time figuring out who was responsible for the mess in the first place. Must have been gremlins.

Finding Your Car at Heathrow

Jaguar-SS100-3.gif When the new $8 billion Terminal 5 opens in March of next year at London's Heathrow airport, you won't have to worry about remembering where you park your car. According to a story in USA Today, infrared cameras and sensors will be capturing a car's license plate as it enters the terminal's parking garage, and as the car makes its way inside the garage, additional cameras will be monitoring it. Cameras will also take a picture of where each car eventually ends up parking.

When passengers return from a flight, they can go to a kiosk and either enter their parking ticket or license plate number. The location of their car will then be displayed on a diagram of the parking terminal.

The parking garage will also have information telling passengers where there is open parking. You can read a story about smart parking technology in a story I wrote for IEEE Spectrum on-line here.

In a related parking story, also from USA Today, it seems that because parking is at such a premium in many areas of Britain, that fast-food restaurants like McDonald's are warning customers to eat up in 45 minutes or risk a parking fine of $150, while supermarkets and department stores, including British retail giant Tesco, are warning shoppers they too will be fined if they park for more than two or three hours. Just like at Heathrow, cameras are being used to identify the cars overstaying the parking time limits.

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Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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