back to article Why did top Home Office civil servant lobby Ofcom for obscure kit ban?

Questions have been raised over the UK Home Office's most senior civil servant's involvement in the banning of GSM gateways – following botched redactions to freedom-of-information responses by Ofcom. When Ofcom – Blighty's comms regulator – first banned GSM gateways in 2003 the man who is now the Permanent Secretary of the …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Having worked in the civil service, i'd comment that the actual paper "chain of command" is often so full of people who have failed upwards that there is a "chain of competence" that I saw cross several department boundaries comprised of people who probably shouldn't have been working on some of the things that they were in fact working on.

    But if they didn't, entire projects and programmes would have collapsed at immense cost to the taxpayer and some departments wouldn't have been able to function.

    1. Phil W

      This is true across all of the public sector. Probably true in some of the private sector too.

      1. m0rt

        Isn't this called the Peter Princple?

        1. ian_from_oz

          The Politician Principle

          The Peter Principle states that people are promoted to the limit of their inability and there they stay. The problem is that there are a group of people, who once they are unable to do their job, shift their energies from doing their actual job to networking. This is the act of playing internal politics.

          The networking efforts of these politicians allows them to move up the chain of command even though they are not able to do the jobs that they are meant to do. These people often use those around them to do the work. This approach has two advantages. If the people around them do the job well, the politician takes credit. If the people fail, it is all their own fault. The politician then gains kudos by punishing their underlings for doing a bad job. The process works because praise moves upwards within an organisation and blame moves downwards.

          Because the process works so well, incapable politicians fill many of the senior positions within government and industry. It is this understanding that explains how government and industry can do such clearly stupid things.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: The Politician Principle

            People who coerce their way through the ranks will little skill to back it up and often with an overblown view of themselves are often sociopaths!

    2. My Alter Ego

      Yeah, I saw this at the Ordnance Survey. I worked with a guy always came "highly recommended" from other departments, yet couldn't read a map after about 20 years of working in production. He always made sure that people were aware of this (the highly recommended bit, not not being able to read a map!), so was completely oblivious to the fact departments would do anything to get rid of him.

      1. 0laf

        AKA "The Dilbert Principle".

        "The Dilbert principle refers to a 1990s theory by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams stating that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing."

        1. smudge

          AKA "The Dilbert Principle".

          I do love Dilbert, but I've always known that as simply the Inverse Peter Principle.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Dilbert vs Peter Principle

            The Peter Principle is an empirical observation that people within an organization rise to the level of their own incompetence. The Dilbert Principle describes one organizational self-preservation response to the reality of the Peter Principle, where those who have risen to their level of incompetence are shifted to roles where they can do the least harm. Unfortunately, the operation of the Peter Principle almost always dooms the application of the Dilbert Principle to failure: as those charged with its implementation are themselves too incompetent to succeed.

      2. Jake Maverick

        "departments would do anything to get rid of him."

        that is why he's always highly recommended then? always a big RED WARNING SIGN!!!!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Please mind the gap

    You have to wonder if the reason is that it provides some sort of gap in full take surveillance, or that if a criminal used it and then got hauled into court it would expose parallel construction on the part of the Home Office and various intelligence agencies.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Please mind the gap

      Alternatively the mobile companies don't like them and someone (obviously I will not speculate on who that might be) is getting a backhander. I'm sure that's not the case however.

    2. streaky

      Re: Please mind the gap

      that it provides some sort of gap in full take surveillance

      Well it probably does to an extent but I doubt this is the real reason (certainly they're monitoring all mobile phones, all the time, c/o Gemalto). The civil service' primary role in government is witness protection for BT, anything that harms their market position must be stamped out, with prejudice. Hence the Ofcom link. natsec is just an excuse (as it tends to be).

      Sure, though, if you operate a gsm gateway you can generate your own keys and decide your own cipher strength, all you need is the ability to write to sim cards which is a 10 quid on ebay type deal, and there's plenty of companies that will sell you blank writeable ones.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    So it's surveillance based?

    "Clearly, if it is possible to allow the use of Commercial Multi-User Gateways for certain types of communications where there may not be the same concerns about not having access to the data or content of communications then we will consider this when determining what may be appropriate to include in a direction. Otherwise there is a risk that we might give a direction which could prohibit something which would be helpful to certain sectors and where there are not the same concerns."

    1. Kane
      Black Helicopters

      Re: What?

      "So it's surveillance based?"

      One would assume so, given the interest of the HO. Likely scenario being that the Home Sec knew Rutnam's history with Ofcom and encouraged him to try and sway influence with his old schoolboy chums, so that they could bypass the usual process/protocols in trying to curb the use of COMUGs.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The Money and/or Spooks.

  5. Alan Brown Silver badge

    "It also bombarded us with phone calls and emails demanding we delete Dine's name from the story, on the grounds that he is "too junior" to be named."

    It would be amusing to release recordings and the emails.

    1. Kane

      "It would be amusing to release recordings and the emails."

      Go on El Reg, you know you want to!

      Won't someone think of the journalistic integrity?

      1. gazthejourno (Written by Reg staff)

        Typical call:

        Me: "Hello, El Reg"

        Them: "Hi, Home Office PR here"

        Me: "Not again"

        Them: "Can you delete that name"

        Me: "No, for the NNth time"

        Them: "You must delete it"

        Me: "No, you've given me no reason to"

        Them: "Oh yes we have"

        Me: "Oh no you haven't"

        Them: "Oh yes you have"



        *phone rings on opposite side of desk*

        "Hello, El Reg, editor speaking... oh no"

        1. Paul Kinsler

          Me: "Oh no you haven't"

          I take it El Reg is now planning a panto for next year?

          1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Me: "Oh no you haven't"

            I'm sure there's a "behind yooou" missing from that dialogue.

            1. Valeyard

              Re: Me: "Oh no you haven't"

              Them: "Hi, Home Office PR here"

              Is that a new euphemistic name for ass-covering and state-censorship?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          This only happens because...

          James Bond is not real,

          and we cannot afford to operate our black helicopters to crush el-reg tower...

    2. Warm Braw

      Matthew Dine

      You don't even need to do the highlight trick on the PDF.

      If you google "comug correspondence ofcom", the PDF file seen by The Register appears at or near the top of the search listings. If you click on the down arrow adjacent to the link and select "cached", Google will helpfully give you the entire text of the document, e-mail addresses included.

      I hope the PR people have spent as much time hounding Ofcom...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Matthew Dine

        If you google -

        Matthew Dine home office

        You get a picture of Sir Humphrey ha ha ha ha!

  6. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    GSM Gateway Usage

    GSM gateways are devices that were used to let people make cheap overseas phone calls, back when calls abroad cost tens of pennies per minute to make.

    Not quite: GSM Gateways were widely used when it cost 15ppm (& upwards) to call a UK mobile from a landline, but 4ppm to call mobile to mobile.

    Many companies used them as a way to save a lot of money on UK mobile calls. The operators disliked gateways as they claimed the gateways hogged cell capacity preventing normal mobiles from making & receiving calls.

    1. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: GSM Gateway Usage

      It also used to cost the local currency equivalent of about £5 per minute to call from overseas to a UK mobile, when the overseas leg of the call was basically too cheap to meter.

      1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: GSM Gateway Usage

        As a certified "old fart", I remember, when The Phone Company [cue Lily Tomlin] ran things, they promised us that the PicturePhone(tm) would be available soon, thanks to their hard work. And you needed both a local and a long distance carrier (both of whom got a slice of the bill). My last landline phone bill, before I told them to take a walk, was in the $40-$60 per month range, and that's BEFORE any calls.

        Now, I have Skype, Ooma and FaceTime. Ooma costs me $15/mo and provides a landline number. Skype and Facetime provide video calling to anywhere in the world for no cost at all.

        My family's mobiles (3 of them) cost me $229/mo. For unlimited calling, but there's still the whole data charges thing that needs to get way more reasonable. It will happen, but, as history shows, not quickly.

        Now, can you really blame people for using something like a GSM gateway? I feel for the intelligence agencies, but I believe (at least in the US), anything that goes out over the air has a "law enforcement intercept capability" at the switching center. get it before it goes into VOIP. They're tapping everything, everywhere now anyway, so I really don't understand what all the fuss is about.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: GSM Gateway Usage

          "I remember, when The Phone Company [cue Lily Tomlin] ran things, they promised us that the PicturePhone(tm) would be available soon, thanks to their hard work. "

          I remember a BT engineer at a conference telling me with utter confidence that this Internet thing would come to nothing because video phones would soon be available. The Transputer was going to solve the problem of video compression down a phone line.

          In retrospect, it's a bit frightening what it says about the arrogance of British utilities.

        2. H in The Hague

          Re: GSM Gateway Usage

          "My family's mobiles (3 of them) cost me $229/mo. For unlimited calling, but there's still the whole data charges"

          So that's USD 76 for one phone. For EUR 60 = USD 74 you can get this:


          Unlimited data and calls in the EU and the US, from a mainstream Dutch telecoms provider. So cheaper to get a contract for US calls & data in the EU than the US?!? Somehow I find it v difficult to understand the North American telecoms market.

  7. dave 81

    Home offce

    Tell them to go fuck themselves. Fucking self interested spying cunts.

    1. Aladdin Sane

      Re: Home offce

      Lenny Bruce was right.

    2. dnicholas

      Re: Home offce

      Don't sit on the fence Dave, tell us what you really think :p

  8. Alan Brown Silver badge

    One of the more interesting questions

    Given the EU has explicitly said gateway devices are legal, what happens if someone operates one and it gets to court?

    Judges have an interesting knack for seeing through handwaving such as "national security" without actual proof being provided, especially when something has been declared explicitly legal throughout the EU. Even if given "proof" they're likely to simply tell the spooks to up their game.

    It would be amusing to see Ofcom handed its ass on a platter (and i suspect they'd rather avoid that)

    One might ask if Philip Rutnam has ties to the mobile phone companies in addition to the possible spook angles. (It may be a simpler explanation)

    1. Cuddles

      Re: One of the more interesting questions

      "Given the EU has explicitly said gateway devices are legal, what happens if someone operates one and it gets to court?"

      In theory it would first go through the UK courts, and depending on their answer potentially then be escalated to the EU who would almost certainly rule that the UK should allow them. In practice, by the time it even made it to the first hearing the UK, we'll have left the EU and the whole thing will be moot. The absolute best possible outcome would be ruling that maybe they shouldn't have been banned in the past but that it's perfectly legal to ban them at the time the ruling is made.

      1. Champ

        Re: One of the more interesting questions

        > In practice, by the time it even made it to the first hearing the UK,

        > we'll have left the EU and the whole thing will be moot.

        I wouldn't necessarily bet on that...

    2. Tom 38

      Re: One of the more interesting questions

      what happens if someone operates one and it gets to court?

      You spend 7 years on bail - just ask Daniel Mahony

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: One of the more interesting questions

      "It may be a simpler explanation"

      Being senior in the HO is a simple enough explanation for all sorts of shenanigans..

  9. TRT Silver badge

    Isn't it Modus Operandi...

    to create suspicion and intrigue around an entirely innocent, innocuous and trivial matter in order to draw attention away from the really sinister thing that's going on?

  10. Steve Evans

    Copy and paste...

    Be careful El Reg... Copy and pasting to reveal the content of a badly redacted document is probably enough to have you grabbed by the fuzz, you circumvented a protection mechanism after all!

    1. Rob Daglish

      Re: Copy and paste...

      <sighs> it's been so long since anyone has grabbed me by the fuzz...

  11. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Why was it so badly redacted? Maybe someone at Ofcom thinks that Freedom of Information means exactly that.

  12. Missing Semicolon Silver badge
    Big Brother

    "News Management"

    Quote: "It is noteworthy that, at the time of writing, ours are the only news articles listed on Google that have mentioned the Home Office Investigatory Powers Unit"

    This is how the MSM is manipulated in the UK. Not by direct lying, but by just leaving out the important bits. When you read an article in a paper, and think "huh? what was that about?" it may well be that the key information as been "soft-pedalled".

    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: "News Management"

      Yes. It's called "lying by omission"

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shit, I used to have one of those at home for many years!

    Mobile reception was poor inside the house, and the Nokia gateway, plugged into the second line on the BT PABX (ebay find from an bankruptcy sale, 2 external lines, 8 internal lines) meant I could call mobile phones cheaply, also abroad cheaper than BT due to some scheme Orange ran).

    No, I'm OK, looks like I had a COSUG rather than a COMUG... Phew!

  14. Red Bren
    Big Brother

    Interesting Cover Story

    M: Ah 007 sit down. We have an unusual mission for you. We want you to stop people using these. [points to a device on the table]

    007: What is it? An IED?

    Q: No 007 it's a GSM Gateway. It allows our greatest enemy the ability to circumvent our surveillance.

    007: So you want me to go to China and destroy the factory that makes them?

    M: No 007.

    007: You want me to assassinate the design team?

    M: No 007 we want you to take a senior role at OFCOM and make sure they are banned.

    007: Isn't that a bit, erm public, for a spy? I know nothing about communications regulation or competition law.

    M:You don't need to be qualified to run a quango, the junior staff do all the real work. You'll be hidden in plain site as it were, and if anyone does suspect, we'll just move you to another civil service role. Why do you think we have so many of them?

    007: Ok but do I get my own PA?

    M: 009 is between assignments and she's a qualified accountant

    007: Excellent, she can teach me about double entry

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Interesting Cover Story

      I see what you did there :)

      1. Frumious Bandersnatch

        Re: Interesting Cover Story

        I think you mean "double entendry"...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Home Office

    The only place where people fall UP the stairs....

  16. GcdJ

    Could the request to regulate then be related to crime rather than cost saving?

    Whilst COMUGs save dialing costs arn't these the same deices being used by fraudsters to spoof phone numbers onto phones. They pretend to be from your bank and need to "take you through security" before taking you on a merry dance that results in your bank account being emptied.

    If these companies are allowing spoofing then the government is right to ban them - or at least regulated them so that they can not be used for nefarious purposes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Could the request to regulate then be related to crime rather than cost saving?

      No. You cannot spoof numbers (i.e. making it look like an 0800 number from your bank) on GSM gateways. It either presents the number of the sim card making the call or withholds the number altogether.

  17. dave 93

    After Brexit, rip-off mobile charges will come back

    And these gateways have the potential to allow entrepreneurs to undercut mobile operator's ability to gouge customers, like they did in 'the good old days'.

    Follow the money - does Sir Philip Rutnam have links to any mobile operators?

  18. hairydog

    The whole security thing is nonsense. GSM gateway-originated cals are just as traceable as any other mobile call.

    The incoming leg via VoIP is just as traceable as any other VoIP call.

    The only plausible reason is the commercial interests of mobile networks. But that's not a valid reason for a legal ban, so a pretence has to be built up.

    Follow the money.

  19. Potemkine! Silver badge


    "Department for Transport, which of course has nothing to do with spectrum and phone regulation."

    Even if RFC 1149 is implemented?

    1. Allan George Dyer

      Re: Haha!

      Surely RFC 1149 comes under the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

  20. PaulJohnDavies

    Rutnam has a long history of favouring commercial companies over citizens - it became so dangerous for him, and Heywood, Cabinet Secretary (they both have titles but I can't bring myself to use them as they have polluted them so much) who worked at the same American bank, that Heywood promoted him in panic to the Home Office. Heywood used wilful blindness and refused to deal with Rutnam's authorisation and endorsement (he wouldn't sign anything) of lies to protect Govia - see below. As a further insult, Heywood and Gray (Director General of Propriety and Ethics and in charge of vetting honours) gave Rutnam a KCB for services to Govia and mendacity - thus insulting all the worthy people who received honours.

    Rutnam's failures at Transport included the East Coast fiasco, twice, the West Coast fiasco, Western electrification, now never to be delivered in full so dual fuel has to be used at enormous continuing cost, over budget and hugely behind time as well as despoiling an area of outstanding natural beauty, and Southern, which the DfT claims is a franchise but which is a contract with Govia that allows them to make more money NOT running trains. He also allowed Govia's executives to make money personally turning down penalty fares appeals, running the Orwellian Independent Penalty Fares Appeals Service, which was so supposed to be independent and seen to be independent, but which is just part of Govia, and then allowed Govia to use penalty fare legislation NOT to impose a £20 penalty fare but to demand £250 with threats in a follow up letter. Rutnam dismissed concerns about that without a thought - anything for Govia.

    So I don't know which commercial companies it is that Rutnam is protecting but I can know that it won't be the public. He believes, probably quite rightly, that with Heywood's protection he is completely unaccountable. He didn't have to wait for heaven to get his reward of a KCB - perhaps it's a peerage next?

    I'm running a twitter campaign to get Rutnam's KCB removed - #removeRutnamsKCB - it won't do any good but the steady drip of facts that show Rutnam is a complete failure propped up by Heywood may do some good.

    For Heywood's integrity look at For Gray's background and the fact that she endorsed Michael Gove using his wife's private email system for government business - presumably to defeat FoI (shades of Hillary?) look at this:

    And these are the people who are charged to ensure integrity in public life - and look at them!

  21. streaky
    Black Helicopters


    Can we talk about how that's the most idiotic piece of redaction in all of history.

    Firstly there's nothing in there requiring redaction from any perspective so why did it happen, and secondly what the actual fuck on being incompetent at it?

  22. PaulJohnDavies

    Rutnam's failures and the insult of his KCB - pollutes the honours system

    Rutnam's record at the Department for Transport is one of a cosy relationship with the train operating companies at the expense of the public - he sanctioned Govia to run the so-called Independent Penalty Fares Appeals Service (IPFAS) and was happy that every time that organisation (which was required to be independent and seen to be independent by Parliament and clearly wasn't) turned down an appeal the executives of Govia benefited personally - as was confirmed by Rutnam. He also, appallingly, allowed Govia to use penalty fares legislation to not impose a penalty fare of £20 - take a name and address and then send a threatening letter demanding £250 instead. The Cabinet Secretary, who left the Civil Service under a cloud in 2003, Sir Jeremy Heywood, used wilful blindness when he was asked to condemn Rutnam for covering this up to the Cabinet Office - Rutnam authorised and then endorsed the statement that IPFAS was an arm's length subsidiary of Govia. That was completely false but Heywood ignored that and pretended that Rutnam had not been guilty of professional misconduct. (The lie wouldn't have meant the legal requirements were met - but it did sound better.) Last year, in panic, Rutnam was removed from Transport - we know his string of failures, including the East Coast fiasco (twice), the West Coast fiasco, the failed Western electrification (where it is years behind time, well over budget and so badly wrong the trains have to use dual fuel now at colossal expense) and the Southern contract (wrongly pretended to be a franchise) which is an insult to everyone but a boon to Govia which runs it. (Govia makes more money if trains don't run, for example - how lovely for Govia and Rutnam. Then in the last honours, in order to put two fingers up to everyone and let the world know that he was totally unaccountable, Heywood, who had worked at the same American bank as Rutnam, gave Rutnam a KCB. (Honours are vetted by Sue Gray, Director General of Propriety and Ethics, working directly for Heywood - and she too exonerated Rutnam for lying by completely ignoring the issue and pretending everything was lovely.)

    I don't know why Rutnam got involved in the issue from his level (and he is usually careful to make lackeys do his work for him) but you have to question whether it was to protect one or more of the commercial companies that he has been working with. (And I always remind the lackeys that they have to tell the truth and just following orders is no defence and that while it is almost impossible to hold a civil servant to account, we will at some stage achieve that.)

    I have a twitter campaign, #removeRutnamsKCB, saying that Rutnam (I can't bring myself to call him "Sir Philip" as it sticks in my throat as much as "Sir Jeremy" Heywood who is known for his lack of integrity - see should have his KCB removed. It won't do any good but these people who don't understand what telling the truth is and why that is important to our society that there are standards of honesty have to be brought to account somehow. It is a real insult to the worthy people who receive honours that a KCB should be given to someone for mendacity and services to Govia.

  23. The Mighty Atom

    The Whitehall Farce Continues

    Sir Philip or Sir Humphrey? Perhaps an attempted cover-up being gradually exposed.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    of the roosting variety coming home it seems.

  25. PaulJohnDavies

    Philip Rutnam

    Philip Rutnam was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport and oversaw most of the colossally expensive failures, including the West electrification which is years behind schedule and well over budget and despoiled areas of outstanding natural beauty by using the wrong gantries, the East Coast Main Line fiascos - twice; Thameslink handed to Govia as a management contract which rewards Govia for NOT employing drivers and NOT running trains (cosy relationship there) and where Govia were allowed to buy out the limited liability for fines; the West Coast franchise disaster; and allowing Govia to scam passengers with the so-called Independent Penalty Fares Appeals Service - which was and is not independent but a money-making scandalous operation for Govia and which Rutnam pretended was an arm's length subsidiary - whatever that is. (Even Jeremy Heywood that master of secrecy and obfuscation would not deny that Rutnam had authorised lies about Govia - then endorsed them.) Rutnam was moved to the Home Office because the scandals were getting too close to him - he and Heywood worked at the same American bank (though at different times) - and Rutnam was given a KCB, presumably for services to Govia and mendacity. At the Home Office he has failed to master the brief (or deliberately avoided doing so because apparently he is intelligent enough to avoid censure) (and his appareance before the Select Committee exposed that in spades), and has used his zero EIQ to further the hostile environment created by Theresa May. He is unaccountable, a purveyor of falsehoods, a protector of Govia and First Group, and a disaster. (By the way all of this is HIS responsibility and not the Minister's - because Rutnam should be required to tell the truth and he doesn't.

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