TechnologyHackers force Revenue retreat

Hackers force Revenue retreat

The Inland Revenue has suspended its plans to allow taxpayers to communicate with the department by email, having so far spent £200m to install 55,000 computers for the project.

It is understood the plans have been temporarily shelved amid Revenue fears that hackers could break the security codes of its proposed Microsoft’s Office-based national email service.

As a result the computers are not yet being used to their full capacity and a new trial is not expected to be run until next year.

According to officials, the Inland Revenue told staff in an internal publication last week that one of its concerns was that hackers could intercept emails or even pretend to be Nick Montagu – the department’s chairman – for the purposes of reading and sending emails.

The Revenue’s internal staff newsletter Revenews, said a trial of external email had raised ‘thorny issues’ which needed to be addressed before the system could be introduced. They were also worried about staff coping with the expected rush of electronic communications. In the trial, staff at the Inland Revenue received 1,000 emails from the public.

But a spokeswoman for the Revenue remained defiant. She said: ‘The trial has finished as planned, but will continue later this year. It is on ice rather than ended. We will decide what to do before continuing.’

She added: ‘This was a trial involving 300 staff. The point of it was to identify and iron out any problems. We will now analyse the results of the pilot before deciding how to proceed.’

The decision follows an email trial involving staff in 10 offices over the past six months, which has suffered because of the security problems. At the heart of the problem is the fact that most emails are sent without the ‘digital certificates’ that can easily be generated on any PC to confirm the sender’s identity.

Those have been legal since last year but are hardly ever used because software companies cannot usually persuade people to implement them.

Revenue officials are already reeling from a decision last month ago to suspend a system enabling taxpayers to file returns over the net because of security breaches. It was restored last week.

The latest embarrassment follows a long line of criticism aimed at the Revenue over its e-filing set up. Many have criticised its online tax service for being too complicated, while a series of site suspensions have hampered its attempts to convince accountants and the public to use the service.

In 2000, the online service also suffered problems when people were unable to download required forms from the website.

According to the government agency, only 79,000 tax returns were filed online last year compared to almost nine million returns. As a result, the Inland Revenue may be regarded as some way from its target set out in its E-Services Strategy document.

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