It may be a new year but the charity sector is facing the same old problems after the Alzheimer’s Society became the latest organisation to be given a final warning to get its house in order or face prosecution over its lax data protection regime.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has slapped the charity with an enforcement notice for a raft of issues which the regulator believes the organisation has so far failed to address properly.
The most serious issue uncovered by the ICO was that volunteers were using personal email addresses to receive and share information about people who use the charity, storing unencrypted data on their home computers and failing to keep paper records locked away.
Furthermore, volunteers were not trained in data protection, the charity’s policies and procedures were not explained to them and they had little supervision from staff.
The failings concerned a group of 15 volunteers recruited in 2007 to help dementia sufferers and their families or carers seek NHS healthcare funding. Between them, and over a seven-year period, they handled 1,920 cases. As part of their role they drafted reports including sensitive information about the medical treatment, care needs and mental health of the people they were trying to help.
Although the charity has made some improvements since the shortcomings were identified in November 2014, the ICO has issued the charity with an enforcement notice because it is concerned more needs to be done.
Head of enforcement Stephen Eckersley said: “In failing to ensure volunteers were properly supported, this charity showed a disappointing attitude towards looking after the very sensitive information that people trusted them with.
“Volunteers form the cornerstone of many charities’ work and we all admire and appreciate their personal commitment and goodwill. They play an important role and must be given the support to handle personal data as safely as paid members of staff. Anything less is unacceptable and, considering the vulnerability of the people who use the Society’s services, we have acted.”
“Our investigation revealed serious deficiencies in the way The Alzheimer’s Society handles personal information. Some of these have been addressed, but the extent and persistence of the charity’s failure to do as we’ve asked means we must now take more formal action.”
As well as issues around the security of personal data, the charity’s website was hacked earlier in 2015, putting at risk around 300,000 email addresses, 66,000 home addresses, phone numbers and some birth dates.
The ICO made a series of recommendations in the wake of the attack and the society implemented most of them. But it did not undertake manual checks of its website, a practice the ICO believed to be crucial in detecting vulnerability. The enforcement notice now requires it to do that.
The ICO has made other recommendations that the charity has failed to implement fully. In 2010 it agreed to a series of security measures after several unencrypted laptops were stolen during an office burglary. And it has been the subject of two audits – in March 2013 and March 2014 – which made recommendations about data security.
If the charity does not comply with the enforcement notice it could face prosecution.
M&C Saatchi-owned agency Lida has handled the charity’s direct marketing account since April 2014.
2015 Review of the Year: charities’ annus horribilis
St John Ambulance in dock over targeting vulnerable
Charities escape legal threat in last chance saloon
Etherington charity slams Charity Commission plan
Charities to lose £5bn a year, says REaD group study
Reforms to exterminate £2bn from charity sector
Walk for us, says Alzheimer charity
Alzheimer’s Society appoints Lida