The fines send out a warning to all organisations that password protection is not enough; data must be fully encrypted too. They also come at a time when all councils are being forced to slash services and jobs on the back of huge Government cuts.
The two councils involved – Ealing and Hounslow – have been fined £80,000 and £70,000 respectively.
Ealing provides an out of hours service on behalf of both councils, which is operated by nine staff who work from home. The team receive contact from a variety of sources and rely on laptops to record information about individuals.
Two laptops containing the details of around 1,700 individuals were stolen from an employee’s home. Almost 1,000 of the individuals were clients of Ealing Council and almost 700 were clients of Hounslow Council. Both laptops were password protected but unencrypted – despite this being in breach of both councils’ policies.
There is no evidence to suggest that the data held on the computers has been accessed and no complaints from clients have been received by the data controllers to date but there was nevertheless a significant risk to the clients’ privacy.
The ICO ruled that Ealing breached the Data Protection Act by issuing an unencrypted laptop to a member of staff in breach of its own policies. This method of working has been in place for several years and there were insufficient checks that relevant policies were being followed or understood by staff.
Hounslow Council breached the Act by failing to have a written contract in place with Ealing Council. Hounslow also did not monitor Ealing Council’s procedures for operating the service securely.
Deputy Commissioner David Smith said: “Of the four monetary penalties that we have served so far, three concern the loss of unencrypted laptops. Where personal information is involved, password protection for portable devices is simply not enough.
“The penalty against Hounslow Council also makes clear that an organisation can’t simply hand over the handling of the personal information it is responsible for to somebody else unless they ensure that the information is properly protected.
“Both councils have paid the price for lax data protection practices. I hope all organisations that handle personal information will make sure their houses are in order – otherwise they too may have to learn the hard way.”
Following the incident, both councils contacted affected individuals. Both authorities have also put significantly improved policies in place for information security and have agreed to consider an audit by the ICO.
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