Netherlands Court of Audit: ministry of Foreign Affairs still practices insufficient information security

Note: I have mixed feelings about repeating/amplifying this information by posting a translation here, but deficiencies similar to the observations by the Court of Audit can also be found in public reports in other countries (Anglosphere and beyond). I.e., information security in foreign affairs realms is a generic(-ish) point of attention, not a Dutch one.

On 20 May 2020, Dutch news paper Volkskrant published (in Dutch) an article about an audit report (in Dutch; mirror) regarding the ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report comes from the Netherlands Court of Audit, which is responsible for auditing national government expenditure.

The Volkskrant article spawn from an anonymous tip sent to Dutch whistleblower website (more) and appeared on the same day that the Court’s audit report was published.

Key takeaway from the article (TL;DR):

“According to the whistleblower, ‘state secrets are at risk’ and the IT system and encryption of information were outdated and unsafe in ‘the days of Hawija and MH17’.”

The Court is clear about its assessment of the state of information security at the ministry of Foreign Affair. Translating a part of the conclusion on p.17 of the Court’s audit report:

Moreover, the Minister paints a very positive picture of this to the Lower House of Parliament. This is illustrative of the lack of recognition of the importance of good information security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we have observed for a number of years in succession. Especially at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we expect better understanding into the importance of good information security in view of the threat from state actors, among others.

For the third year in a row, the ministry does not comply with the regulations for information security that apply within the national government. That is why the Netherlands Court of Audit qualifies information security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a serious deficiency.

Table 3: Deficiencies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
(translated: “Information security: Deficiency | Deficiency | Severe deficiency”

The Court makes the following recommendations, in addition to upholding last year’s recommendations:

  • Ensure that documentation, such as an information security strategy/vision, is formalized at the appropriate level to provide guidance and support for information security in accordance with organizational requirements and relevant laws and regulations.
  • Provide an overarching annual plan for information security with the translation into projects that include budget, staffing and supplies. This is an instrument for steering the realization of information security goals in accordance with the policy, mission and strategy, and the support for this.
  • Describe the risk management process with the most important elements such as control, acceptance and ownership of risks in order to achieve the correct security of information and information systems within the context of the organizational objectives.

The Court notes that security is a strong as the weakest link and that cross-departmental systems do not yet have clear owners/responsibilities (bold emphasis added):

We note that there is a real risk in the chain of information exchange. There are strong interdependencies between ministries in exchanging state-secret, company-confidential and privacy-sensitive information. Due to the large differences in the levels of information security, risks arise when exchanging information. The weakest link in the chain determines the strength of the chain as a whole. It is important that mutual relationships, differences and dependencies between the links in the chain are clear to every ministry. It is presently unclear who is responsible for cross-departmental chains of information systems that.

The remainder of this post is an English translation of the Volkskrant article. It is a manually corrected version of an automated translation via

Netherlands Court of Audit: state secrets of ministry of Foreign Affairs still poorly secured

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have its information security and does too little to solve this. As a result, there is risk of compromise of its state secrets. Minister Blok unjustly paints ‘a very positive picture to the House of Representatives’ of improvement plans.

Natalie Righton and Hessel von Piekartz
20 May 2020, 16:08

This conclusion was reached by the Court of Auditors on Wednesday in a hard-hitting report entitled Verantwoordingsonderzoek Buitenlandse Zaken 2019 (Accountability audit report Foreign Affairs 2019). All ministries present their annual reports on ‘judgement day’, as the accounting day on the third Wednesday in May is also referred to. The Court of Audit audits them and expresses an opinion on their operations in the past year.

Foreign Affairs does not meet its own minimum requirements for information security. The problem is serious and persistent. This ultimately means a risk, also for the protection of state-sensitive information’, says Ewout Irrgang, a member of the Netherlands Court of Audit.

The state auditor describes the inadequate security as a ‘serious imperfection’. According to Irrgang, that is ‘a very serious opinion’. This year, of all government departments, only the IT habitat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was given that label.

State secrets

According to the Court, malicious parties are actively looking for weaknesses in the security of Foreign Affairs’ information systems.

Sabotage, theft, and the leaking of state secret, business confidential and privacy-sensitive information’ are lurking around the corner, writes the Court of Audit in its report. There are indications that cyber criminals are plunging into this and the number of false e-mails about the coronavirus has risen sharply. For example, fake emails are being sent on behalf of the World Health Organization with malicious, dangerous malware,’ states the Court of Audit in its report.

Other examples of the weak security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are easy to crack passwords, information exposed to interception, and the central storage of sensitive information. It is safer to store data compartmentalized, i.e. in small chunks, so that not everyone can access the entire file.

Information security is particularly important in times of crisis, such as the corona crisis, according to the Court of Auditors. Diplomats exchange information digitally even more than usual, because they work from home, make video calls and hold telephone consultations.

The approximately 5,000 diplomats from The Hague and the 144 embassies and consulates send a lot of information that is of interest to cyber criminals. Think of information about Russia’s involvement in the MH17 disaster or the consequences of the Dutch bombardment of Hawiya. The lack of security applies both to the laptops and telephones that diplomats use when they are on the road, and to the official computers at headquarters or embassies.

According to the Court of Audit, Minister Blok of Foreign Affairs is too optimistic about the state of information security.

No priority

To the annoyance of the State Inspector, the State Department does too little to put security in order. This is the third year in a row that the Court of Auditors has concluded that these problems exist. The situation has not improved, but has actually worsened, which irritates the Court of Audit.

This is illustrative of the lack of recognition of the importance of good information security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we have observed for a number of years in succession. It is precisely at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we expect more insight into the importance of good information security in view of the threat from state actors, among others,’ says the Court of Audit.

Despite earlier warnings, no fewer than ten of the eleven information systems used by diplomats have not received a stamp of approval.

Back to paper

It was already announced last year that both the EU and NATO are threatening not to send any more electronic documents from Brussels to The Hague if Foreign Affairs does not get its security in order. Minister Blok wrote to the House of Representatives on 9 December that this is why ‘the highest priority is being given’ to getting the accreditation (approval) of the information systems in order.

Remarkably, he emphasized that Foreign Affairs might ‘fall back on the traditional way’ if the department no longer received digital information from international partners.

By this the minister means physical letters, according to worried IT people who contacted the Volkskrant anonymously. One of them concludes that the information security of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is ‘a big mess’.

According to the whistleblower, ‘state secrets are at risk’ and the IT system and the encryption of information was outdated and unsafe in ‘the days of Hawija and MH17 .

For the Court of Audit, the Minister’s suggestion to fall back on paper mail is an ‘illustration that not much priority is being given’ to the problem, according to fellow member Irrgang.

Response from Minister Blok

In a response to the harsh conclusions of the Court of Audit, Minister Blok stated on Wednesday that information security is certainly a priority for the department. There is no doubt that inadequate information security can have far-reaching and disruptive consequences’, Blok said in a written response. According to the minister, hard work is being done on improvements.

We’re taking this very seriously and we’re working on it,’ adds a spokesman Wednesday. On the possibility of state secrets leaking, he says that to date he ‘has not experienced anything going wrong. My experience is that we are functioning reasonably well in that regard’. The Minister endorses the Court’s new recommendations, such as a plan of action.

MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma (D66 party) says it’s ‘worrying’ that the ministry does not yet have control over its information security. It becomes even more annoying when it turns out that Minister Blok consistently presents progress in a more positive way than is actually the case and downplays the consequences of this problem. This is not acceptable at a time when cyber attacks and espionage are increasing rapidly,’ says Sjoerdsma.