The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has served monetary penalties to two councils for breaching the Data Protection Act.

North Somerset Council and Worcestershire County Council after staff at both authorities sent highly sensitive personal information to the wrong recipients. The news comes as the Information Commissioner is pressing for stronger powers to audit data protection compliance across local government and the NHS.

1. Worcestershire County Council was fined £80,000 for an incident in March 2011 where a member of staff emailed highly sensitive personal information about a large number of vulnerable people to 23 unintended recipients. The error occurred when the employee clicked on an additional contact list before sending the email, which had only been intended for internal use.

Enquiries by the ICO found that Worcestershire County Council had failed to take appropriate measures to guard against the unauthorised processing of personal data, such as providing employees with appropriate training and clearly distinguishing between internal and external email distribution lists. The council had also failed to properly consider an alternative means of handling the information, such as holding it in a secure system that could only be accessed by members of staff who needed to see it. Fortunately, on this occasion all of the unintended recipients worked for registered organisations used to operating within the council’s protocols about handling sensitive data. Worcestershire County Council has explained to the ICO that as soon as the breach occurred the council employee immediately realised their error and attempted to contact all of the unintended recipients to ensure that the information was deleted.

2. North Somerset Council was fined £60,000 for breaching the Data Protection Act when a council employee sent five emails, two of which contained highly sensitive and confidential information about a child’s serious case review, to the wrong NHS employee.

The incidents, which took place during November and December 2010, occurred when a council employee selected the wrong email address when creating a personal distribution list. The council employee was told about the error by the unintended recipient shortly after the first incident took place. Despite this, information was emailed to the same NHS employee on a further three occasions. The issue was then raised at senior level. Two of the council’s Assistant Directors highlighted the issue with the employee on 9 December but a fifth and final incident took place later that same day. The NHS organisation verbally confirmed to North Somerset Council that it destroyed the emails after their own internal investigation was complete.

The ICO’s enquiries found that, although North Somerset Council had some policies and procedures in place, it had failed to ensure that relevant staff received appropriate data protection training. In response to these incidents, the ICO has recommended that the council adopts a more secure means to send information electronically, including encryption and ensuring that managers sign off email distribution lists.

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said: “Personal information in cases involving vulnerable people is about the most sensitive personal information imaginable. It is of great concern that this sort of information was simply sent to the wrong recipients by staff at two separate councils. It was fortunate that in both cases at least the email recipients worked in a similar sector and so were used to handling sensitive information. This mitigating factor has been taken into account in assessing the amount of the penalties.

“There is too much of this sort of thing going on across local government. People who handle highly sensitive personal information need to understand the real weight of responsibility that comes with keeping it secure. Of course this includes having the correct training and policies in place, but it’s also about common sense. Considering whether email is the appropriate medium, checking and double checking that the right recipients will receive the information – and measures like encryption and data minimisation – should be routine. I hope these penalties send a clear message to those working in the social care sector. The Information Commissioner takes this sloppiness seriously – and so should you.”

The ICO is pressing the Ministry of Justice for stronger powers to audit local councils’ data protection compliance, if necessary without consent. The same powers are sought for NHS bodies following a series of data protection breaches.

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