The fine will be a major embarrassment to MoJ officials, who work closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office on enforcement.
But the breach was only discovered when one of the recipients contacted the prison in August 2011 to report that they had received an email from the prison clerk about an upcoming visit, which included a file containing the inmates’ details. The file included a spreadsheet containing sensitive information including the names, ethnicity, addresses, sentence length, release dates and coded details of the offences carried out by all of the prison’s 1,182 inmates.
An internal investigation was launched and the same error was found to have occurred on two previous occasions within the previous month, with details sent to different inmates’ families. Neither incident was reported at the time.
The police and a member of the prison’s staff were sent to the recipients’ home addresses and checks were made to ensure the files had been deleted. The unauthorised disclosures were reported to the ICO on 8 September 2011.
The ICO’s investigation found that there was a clear lack of management oversight at the prison, with the clerk working unsupervised despite only having worked at the prison for two months and having limited experience and training. A lack of audit trails also meant that the disclosures would have gone unnoticed if they hadn’t been reported by one of the recipients.
The investigation also found problems with the manner in which prisoners’ records were handled, with unencrypted floppy disks regularly used to transfer large volumes of data between the prison’s two separate networks.
ICO Deputy Commissioner and director of data protection David Smith, said: “The potential damage and distress that could have been caused by this serious data breach is obvious. Disclosing this information not only had the potential to put the prisoners at risk, but also risked the welfare of their families through the release of their home addresses.
“Fortunately it appears that the fall-out from this breach was contained, but we cannot ignore the fact that this breach was caused by a clear lack of management oversight of a relatively new member of staff. Furthermore the prison service failed to have procedures in place to spot the original mistakes.
“It is only due to the honesty of a member of the public that the disclosures were uncovered as early as they were and that it was still possible to contain the breach.”
In August, the MoJ said it would review the prosecution of a probation officer – found guilty of handing over the new address of a domestic violence victim to the perpetrator – after she received a fine of just £150.
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