Govt agencies to re-examine systems after Inland Revenue email misdirected

Root cause of misdirected emails "just one of those events that happens", says deputy commissioner

Government agencies are being asked to look at their email systems following the Inland Revenue's accidental release of 201 emails to the wrong people.

At a press conference today IR deputy commissioner Michael Hewetson says the fault - which was disclosed over the weekend - was not the Secure Environment for Email (SEEmail) system. Instead it was in a gateway process, which incorrectly dealt with corrupted emails that had been sidelined to a special container to be reviewed.

Concerned that other government agencies may have a similar setup, Hewetson says a process has been put in place to encourage them to re-examine their own processes, in case they might be prone to the same combination of mishaps that hit IRD.

The department has involved the office of the government CIO in that broader exercise and the supplier of the email gateway "has issued instructions to other users advising them of what Inland Revenue has done to rectify the situation."

The original cause of the fault was an inexplicable request for extra memory issued by the mail gateway software. This corrupted the emails in question, so they were sent to the special container. Obvious spam was deleted from that container, but because the remaining emails had recognisable addresses, they were released back into the main system. Those addresses had, however, been mixed up among the emails, so they ended up going to the wrong recipients.

"This was a software corruption error in our external email server," Hewetson says; "it was not human error and not the result of a cyber-attack or a virus." IRD will now no longer be reprocessing any emails; if an email appears to be corrupt, the sender will simply be notified of non-delivery.

Other government agencies have been advised to do the same.

IR only knew of the mishap when a number of the mistaken recipients contacted the department. Despite this, Hewetson says, the department is confident that the same error has not happened before. It was a very rare combination of circumstances, he says; essential parts of the system functioned as intended and the mix-up only happened because of the erroneous "memory grab".

The cause of that has not been identified. "It was one of those random events that happens and that's as clear as we can be about it," he says, going on to compare it to the occasional inexplicable "blue-screening" of a PC.

A total of 201 emails to 69 parties were affected, he says, but IRD does not yet know how many of these may contain private information. Recipients are being contacted now to assess the likelihood of privacy breach.

Information in the emails included IR numbers and notification of appointments, Hewetson says.

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