The Government has been fined £185,000 after one of the most embarrassing cock-ups of recent years saw a filing cabinet stuffed with personal information on the victims of a terrorist attack – thought to have been perpetrated by the IRA – sold at auction.
The files, belonging to the Department of Justice Northern Ireland, included information about the injuries suffered, family details and the amount of compensation offered, as well as confidential ministerial advice.
The incident occurred when the Compensation Agency Northern Ireland, which falls under the control of the DoJ, moved offices in February 2012. Staff did not realise the locked cabinet contained sensitive information, and it was earmarked for auction alongside other unwanted office furniture. It was sold, without a key, to a member of the public in May 2012.
When the buyer forced the lock he found papers dating from the Seventies through to 2005. The buyer immediately contacted the police who returned the papers to the Compensation Agency.
While there was an expectation within the agency that personal data would be handled securely, the ICO investigation found limited instructions to staff on what this meant in practice, despite the highly sensitive information the office held.
ICO Assistant Commissioner for Northern Ireland Ken Macdonald said: “This is clearly a very serious case. While failing to check the contents of a filing cabinet before selling it may seem careless, the nature of the information typically held by this organisation made the error all the more concerning.
“The distress that could have been caused to victims and their families had this fallen into the wrong hands is self-evident.”