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The latest unfortunate UK government data leak - the escape of details of an estimated 5,000 prison officer and admin staff after private contractor EDS mislaid a sensitive portable hard drive - has sparked a strike threat by prison workers.

As with last year's infamous child benefit data loss, the government department involved reckons that the physical media involved has been lost rather than stolen. The 500GB drive hadn't been seen since July 2007, but nobody realised this until the data was needed again early in July.

The data comprises information about workers for National Offender Management Service (NOMS), including prison officers as well as support and ancillary staffers. Information on the drive included names, dates of birth and National Insurance numbers of the affected workers, as well as less sensitive data such as invoices to suppliers.

The Prison Officers Association are angry at not being informed of the potential loss of the data earlier and are threatening to strike over the issue, Kablenet reports. "We are extremely concerned that not only has this data been lost, but that the Prison Service appear to have tried to conceal this serious breach in security," said POA spokesman Colin Moses.

"It is a breach that we believe could ultimately cost the taxpayer millions and millions of pounds, because, if the information lost is personal and sensitive, it may well mean staff having to move prisons, move homes and relocate their families."

News of the lost drive only emerged via a story in the News of the World on Sunday (7 September). Justice secretary Jack Straw, who reportedly only heard about the problem on Saturday, has ordered an inquiry.

Justice Minister David Hanson expressed anger at the loss, but tried to play down fears that leaked data might pose a risk to the safety of prison officers. Hanson told BBC Radio 5 that this was "a historical loss which I do not believe will ultimately compromise the safety and security of those who work for us".

EDS is one of five technology firms contracted to set up the controversial identity card scheme. The loss of the drive hardly inspires confidence, especially when reports suggest it lost an unencrypted disc drive in the process of shipping it between its offices.

A computer memory stick containing the details of 84,000 prison inmates was lost by a different consultancy last month.

A recent survey by data security firm Check Point found that fewer than half UK business or government department used data encryption.

"Perhaps data security will only be taken seriously when there are serious penalties for losses or breaches – as there is with company financial reporting in the US," said Nick Lowe, head of Northern Europe for Check Point.

"The Justice Minister, Michael Wills, has promised new powers and penalties against reckless misuse of data. But in the meantime data will still be lost or stolen, because companies think it can't, or won't, happen to them." ®

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