As the Treasury announce cuts amounting to £6.25bn, £95m of which deriving from a reduction in IT spending, attention is once more directed towards outsourcing as a means to reduce IT expenditure. But Information Technology stores and processes large amounts of personal, sensitive and confidential data, and when it comes to the public sector it can have a very high level of sensitivity, hence a lot of trust is bestowed upon personnel that have access to it. It is already difficult to place confidence in in-house staff, due to the high number of data breaches that are perpetrated by internal staff, backed up by statistics, but the option of off-shore outsourcing elevates the threat level from code yellow to code red.
Widespread use of Cloud computing is unlikely to become a reality in the foreseeable future: strict regulations relating to the Data Protection Act, which the public sector in particular follows religiously, make it virtually impossible to obtain assurances that the data stored outside the organisation’s premises is adequately controlled and kept secure. However, remote access provided to support staff based at another location, be it in the same or another country, still presents a risk in that information can still be collected and recorded.
With the government CIO, John Suffolk, encouraging the use of outsourcing to countries offering cheaper labour as a cost-cutting strategy, it is time to understand to what extent this can be done and if the public sector can really benefit from off-shoring the Service Desk after all.
Organisations in the public sector are essentially different from private companies: although it seems obvious, it is important to bear in mind that they are funded by British taxpayers, and therefore work for them. However, providing access to personal and sensitive data to companies thousands of miles away and outside the European Union which have different culture, ethics and laws might put the safety of their personal details at risk. For instance, information such as identity, financial and health records can fall into the wrong hands and be used for malicious intent. Not long ago, ITV found that British medical and financial records held abroad could be bought for just a few dollars. No matter how ‘rare’ this event might be, it is not a risk Britons are prepared to take, if the decision were up to them.
It is certainly difficult for organisations in the public sector to carry out a satisfactory level of service when their budgets are being reduced, but it is important to think about the consequences of outsourcing the IT department: a move initially intended to save money can end up making the organisation lose money as a result of large fines and court cases, and most importantly, it can lead to a loss of credibility and reputation.
Recognising a ‘safe’ provider is not easy, especially as identification of a risky supplier often only happens once a breach has been committed, when it might be too late for an organisation to escape liability and to save face. However, it is possible to assess a provider’s trustworthiness before a breach occurs: they should follow Best Practice and have a mature Information Security Management System in line with the ISO 27001 standard, assessed through an independent security review, risk assessment and gap analysis.
There are also better alternatives to extreme or risky versions of outsourcing. For example, the IT department can be kept internal, for better control, but be managed by a third party which is aware of the stringent safety measures necessary for working in this peculiar sector. That said, most information security breaches pertain to threats inside an organisation and are in many cases not a malicious act but a consequence of ignorance, frustration or lack of risk awareness. Well-trained and appropriately-skilled Support staff can reduce these security incidents to a minimum, as would implementing organisational-wide information security awareness sessions.
Management commitment within the industry is especially important to convey the significance of protecting personal and sensitive data and the seriousness of breaching the Data Protection Act, which does not only concern IT staff. Extensive training is necessary to raise awareness across the entire organisation – whenever there is a data breach it is never the provider that suffers the worst consequences, but the organisation’s reputation.
David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security
This opinion piece appears in this week’s Dispatch Box on Public Technology: http://www.publictechnology.net/sector/public-sector-private-data-outsourcing-service-desk-too-risky