Securing census data - surely the ultimate security challenge?

Opinion by Dan Raywood

Previously in blogs I have discussed big data, data governance and information management and I am sure that these all cause varying frustration to you in your job.

Previously in blogs I have discussed big data, data governance and information management and I am sure that these all cause varying frustration to you in your job.

However imagine handling the data records of 60 million individuals and ensuring that it is secure and delivered to a deadline, now there is one time that you don't want to feel the breath of the Information Commissioner on the back of your neck.

I recently met with Cheryl Martin, cyber security lead of Logica's business consulting division, who had worked with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the 2011 Census. The project saw them handling personal information from over 30 million households across the UK, with Logica given the responsibility of designing the security function, providing assurance to the ONS and public that data was being handled securely and confidentially.

Martin told me that the work of the census is across many other businesses and Logica's role as the security partner involved running the official data centre and securing it and the data that was in it.

She said: “It was important that we worked to controls and that the third parties were party to those controls.” 

The project, which finished last month after five years, involved training of staff and working with the census data collectors and Royal Mail on security requirements.

“The secure data centre was built specially for this, but this has now been decommissioned,” she said. “The details of 60 million people were recorded, there were 30 million forms sent to 25 million households. There were 2,400 tons of paper and 60 42-ton trucks worth of data.

“The enormity of the scale was set by the time to do one correctly, we designed an up-front process. The forms were designed for scanning with different information, so we learned lessons from previous censuses and applied those.”

So it was pretty painless overall? Well not exactly, Martin said that one issue involved the Royal Mail picking up a wrong mailbag, but this was resolved without any data compromise or unauthorised access issues. 

Martin admitted that it would have been ‘catastrophic' if there had been a breach, and when the security was set up around it, issues around unauthorised access had to be considered, specifically if someone were to get in and pretend to be an authorised user.

The data centre was built to level three impact and the technology within had to be state-of-the-art to ensure security of the data. In terms of backups, Martin said that the data was backed up to a secure data centre that was separate but with a secure infrastructure.

I asked Martin about the sort of threats that were considered, and she admitted that in 2007 there were concerns over nation-state attacks, lone hackers and organised groups, while advanced persistent threats (APTs) were a consideration over time too.

To deal with this, a risk committee of nine consortium members was assembled to understand and comply with the controls and processes. 

“With nine different bodies, we said you have to sign up to this security policy, as if there is one weak link, someone can get in and the whole thing could be compromised,” she said.

Martin said that had a breach occurred of the census data, it could have been on the same scale as Sony, not to mention what would have happened to the British economy as a result. This led to a major education and training programme that Martin said covered all areas of the operation.

She said: “At our height we had over 10,000 contractors with security training to understand what to do, all the way down to the forklift driver who picked up the Royal Mail bags. It took a huge educational programme to make it work and Logica was part of the programme.”

There was a scare when it was reported that hacktivist group LulzSec had intercepted the data, however this was denied three days later when the ONS investigation found that there had been no compromise.

Census director Glen Watson said: “I can reassure the public that their census records are secure. We have strict measures in place protecting the nation's census information. The claim that hackers got in looks like a hoax and our investigation concluded that there is no sign of any suspicious activity.

“However, we are not complacent and will remain vigilant. The security and confidentiality of census data remain our top priority.”

Martin said that the census process was a positive one and it was viewed with esteem around the world. In terms of the next census, I asked if she felt it could be paperless. She said that the capability supports computer entry in this issue and the first option in the 2011 census was to complete the form online, but it will need to continue to be a dual offering.

“It may be a generational thing, in 2021 it may be different. I can see why forms are sent out but I think I will ask for a paper form,” she said.


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