GDS says use internet to exchange data, not PSN

Head of technology James Stewart points to move away from future use of Public Services Network

Government organisations have been urged to use the internet rather than the Public Services Network to secure their communications, pointing towards a gradual running down of the PSN.

Network graphicJames Stewart, head of technology and director of technical architecture at the Government Digital Service (GDS), has said in a blogpost that a recent meeting of the Technology Leaders Network – which includes a senior technology official from each government department – agreed that there are now technical controls for internet communications that can provide sufficient assurance.

These include using the relevant standards for email security, transport layer security and virtual private networks.

He said it was agreed that for the vast majority of work done by the public sector, using such methods can ensure the internet is as good as the PSN. Also, it is often necessary to use them even when services are on the PSN, which creates an extra layer of complexity.

The move to cloud services is also complicating the situation, as when this is combined with an expectation of using the PSN it can cause confusion.

Time needed

“Of course, it’s not going to happen immediately,” Stewart says of the change in direction. “Organisations that need to access services that are only available on the PSN will still need to connect to it for the time being. They’ll need to continue to meet its assurance requirements, and in fact they should make use of the practices that it covers when reviewing all their core IT.

“But from today, new services should be made available on the internet and secured appropriately using the best available standards based approaches. When we’re updating or changing services, we should take the opportunity to move them to the internet.”

He adds there is no full timeline for moving away from the PSN, and that the head of the service, Mark Smith, is working with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on new ways of providing assurance for data.

In addition, GDS is planning to work with the NCSC and Crown Commercial Service on updating the procurement of network services to provide the right options for high quality connections.

The PSN was launched in 2011 as a ‘network of networks’ for the public sector, with the aim of providing a level of information security not obtainable at the time through regular internet connections.

It has never been used universally: in March 2015 a Cabinet Office report showed that even central government departments were often using other networks for specific functions.

Stewart’s directions suggest there has been a shift in thinking since the spring of last year, when Mark Smith was appointed as head of the PSN. His brief included continuing its development and building a larger community to work on the network.

Image: Rozszerzonej Gwiazdy, public domain