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Government's outdated push to Windows XP and IE software is unacceptable

Column It must get up to date to serve users' security and privacy
Fri May 03 2013, 15:26
V3 and The INQUIRER editor Madeline Bennett

THE FACT that Microsoft will end support for Windows XP in April 2014 has been well publicised, both by the firm itself and countless analysts and technology industry experts.

However, one area that seems to be completely oblivious to this looming deadline is the UK government.

Far from encouraging its various departments and public sector bodies to move onto current versions of operating systems and web browsers, the government seems to be taking the opposite tack and forcing users to stay on old systems if they want to connect with services online.

I must admit to being a sceptic about government IT. I hear a lot about the innovation pushes, cost-cutting measures and centralisation strategies. The G-Cloud initiative was a great example of this, encouraging public sector IT purchasing to favour cloud services on a more flexible basis, and from a broad range of suppliers. But this didn't get the warmest reception in the public sector.

When it comes to the actual reality, most government IT is more along the lines of the million-pound unwieldy, complex systems favoured by those signing off contracts for NHS IT, police IT and so on.

And my view hasn't been helped by some recent guidance notes I’ve come across on the Department of Work and Pensions site, aimed at those at wanting to claim certain benefits.

If you visit the Gov.UK site looking for information on how to claim either Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance or Overseas State Pension, you're helpfully pointed to the DWP website, where you can simply fill in a form online. At first glance, this appears to be a positive use of the internet by the government, letting its citizens apply for benefits over the web, rather than having to fill out forms and send them via the post or visit offices in person.

However, it seems that many of those claimants could fall at the first hurdle due to some rather outdated stipulations about the computer systems supported by the DWP.

We won't publish the full list of system requirements here, but in summary this is what the government requires you to run on your PC in order to complete and submit your benefit application: Microsoft Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP; Internet Explorer (IE) 5 or 6, Firefox 1 or Netscape 7.2 [Seriously? Ed].

Even the DWP is aware of how outdated this list is, pointing out that many of the above are no longer available.

The list of those systems and browsers that aren't supported is rather longer: Macs, Windows Vista, other Unix-based systems like Linux, IE7 to IE10, Chrome, Safari and all versions of Firefox after the first, and all smartphones. The fact that there's no mention of tablets, Android, iOS, and Windows 7 or 8, shows how out of date both this list and the government's technology support are.

"This service doesn't work with some modern browsers and operating systems," the DWP helpfully notes. "We are considering how best to provide this service in future. You may want to claim in another way."

And one last piece of advice from the DWP: don't try to use the website between the hours of 1am and 1.30am on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, as it's down for "essential maintenance work". I've struggled to think what this work could entail, perhaps a huge upgrade to enable support for IE7 and Windows Vista? Or to manually fan the overheated servers?

While this is an amusing example of how bad public sector IT can be, or how far the government is willing to go to avoid paying out benefits, it's also quite frightening that our taxes are being used to fund systems that can only be accessed on machines that are at least five years old.

Of course, there's always the chance that the online forms do work on newer systems and the DWP has not updated its guidance notes. But the fact it's promoting information that is either outdated or about outdated systems on its sites isn't acceptable.

From April 2014, Microsoft will no longer be supporting Windows XP. While companies can make the decision to stay on the old OS after this point, and some no doubt will, the government shouldn't be encouraging people to do so.

The DWP needs to update the guidance and its online systems to support the most recent versions of rival platforms like Android and Mac OS, and more popular browsers like Chrome well ahead of next April. We expect our government to protect our data online, and keep our personal information private. Allowing users to submit forms via unsupported systems is not fulfilling its duties in this area. µ


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