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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 14:42 GMT
Blunkett: The last e-mail casualty?
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett was forced to quit his job on Wednesday after e-mails containing damaging information were discovered.

David Blunkett on Thursday, the day after he resigned as home secretary
Mr Blunkett resigned after his own inquiry uncovered an e-mail

He's not the first person to resign over sensitive e-mails, but will he be the last?

When Jo Moore, a government press officer, wrote an e-mail suggesting 11 September 2001 was a good day to bury bad news, she set a trend for rows over inappropriate e-mails.

City firms have been blighted by a steady stream of sexual discrimination cases originating from e-mail.

And then an inquiry set up by Mr Blunkett to investigate his own conduct uncovered an e-mail from his office to the immigration service - which was then dealing with a visa application for his lover's Philippine nanny.

The full content of the e-mail is not yet known but 24 hours after its discovery Mr Blunkett resigned.

E-mails are a monitored and permanent record. So is there a more secure way of communicating sensitive, potentially damaging, information?

"People are certainly getting more savvy," comments Adrian Palmer, managing director of Kroll Ontrack, a risk management firm called in by companies who suspect employees of passing information.

Jo Moore pictured in 2001
Ms Moore quit following her 11 September e-mail

"They know that their corporate e-mail systems trap all of the information they send."

He says there is an increasing trend to use other means, particularly instant messaging, "to communicate information you shouldn't be communicating".

Instant messaging systems, including MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger, allow users to have "real-time" conversations with no record.

He says financial companies have a particular problem with instant messenger systems and have cracked down on their use.

"There is software available which stores instant messenger conversations, essentially making it as monitored as an e-mail," he says.

I doubt whether Mr Blunkett, for example, would simply be able to install encryption software on his desktop computer
Phil Robinson
Information Risk Management

So, people seeking to communicate via an "untraceable" medium may have to look elsewhere.

According to Phil Robinson, chief technology officer with Information Risk Management, there are several other ways.

"You can get software that allows you to encrypt e-mails by passing specific keys between yourself and whoever you're communicating with," he says.

But an encryption system comes with problems of its own.

"Generally there are quite a few restrictions on what people can download and install on their PCs. I doubt whether Mr Blunkett, for example, would simply be able to install encryption software on his desktop computer."

Web-mail?

Web-based e-mail systems such as Hotmail or Yahoo are also touted as "untraceable".

Phil Robinson disagrees, saying information passed through such systems is actually "very easy" to trace.

But what of the old-fashioned telephone?

Every office has a landline and most people own mobile telephones with SMS - allowing text or verbal communication.

You cannot stop people from talking to each other
Adrian Palmer
But many companies ban the use of mobile phones in the workplace and telephone calls are often monitored and recorded - especially in financial companies.

Mr Blunkett's e-mail indiscretion highlights the battle for information security being fought in offices throughout the country.

Technology provides new mediums of communication - but also gives the means to limit, control and monitor that communication.

There may be an easier way.

Adrian Palmer concludes: "You cannot stop people from talking to each other. If they really want to pass information, they can always just pop to a coffee shop and have a chat."




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