You're a top politician traveling in Africa for a charity event when the loss of your wallet leaves you stranded without cash or credit cards. Who you gonna call? Would you mass-e-mail voters back home begging for a quick loan? Hundreds of constituents of British Cabinet minister Jack Straw found this message waiting for them. "I misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept. I would like you to assist me with a soft loan urgently with the sum of $3,000 US Dollars to settle my hotel bills and get myself back home." The plea came from "The Right Hon Jack Straw MP."
The clunky syntax and odd phrasing provided strong clues that the usually eloquent pol (currently both Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Secretary of State for Justice) wasn't quite himself. This didn't stop a number of recipients from ringing Straw's office to ask if his predicament had been solved. Their calls were met with bafflement. Straw has not recently visited Lagos. Moreover, says his special adviser via text message, when he last did so "to the best of my knowledge he never lost his wallet!" (See a story about the Alicia Keys MySpace phishing controversy.)
But the Labour veteran had lost something potentially far more inconvenient than a wallet: the password to his Hotmail account. He is the latest and highest profile victim of a widespread "phishing" scam, which starts when the target receives an e-mail warning that the account will be suspended unless he or she revalidates it by clicking a link. This leads to a phony website that demands the account password. The scammers immediately hijack the account and use the address book to send out phishing letters. Often the supposed sender explains that he or she is "really sorry I didn't inform you about my traveling for a program called "Empowering Youth to Fight Racism/HIV/AIDS, Poverty and Lack of Education." That certainly would be an ambitious agenda for a conference, but the only potential beneficiaries of the fictitious event are the scammers. "The internet is wonderful in many ways but these gangs put a lot of effort in because they make money from it," said Straw, who as Home Secretary established the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit to crack down on exactly such activities. "In a lot of cases, they do get people to cough up." To the merriment of his Westminster colleagues, none of Straw's constituents put hand into pocket to rescue their MP. (See a story about how one web browser warns users about potential phishing sites.)
Still, if the incident left him feeling a little unloved, it provided a brief distraction from a roiling controversy. On Wednesday, Straw blocked publication of minutes of two Cabinet meetings held in 2003 at which ministers debated the legality of the Iraq war. At that time, Straw was Foreign Secretary. Now, as Justice Secretary, Straw explained his decision not to publish the minutes on the basis that privacy is an essential precondition for high-quality debate. "Cabinet is the pinnacle for the decision-making machinery of government" he told the House of Commons. "Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision-making." As Straw's e-mail correspondents may be reflecting, confidentiality is useful in other areas of government too. Straw maintains that his brush with phishers did not compromise voter privacy. "I am assured there's no evidence that confidentiality of constituents was affected," he said.