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The Home Office has promised privacy regulator the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) that it will handle citizens' personal data securely in the future, after the ICO found it in breach of the Data Protection Act.

A contractor to the Home Office, PA Consulting, lost an unencrypted memory stick containing the sensitive personal information of thousands of people last year. The ICO has now made the Home Office sign a formal undertaking to protect citizens' data.

The Home Office has promised that all mobile or portable machines which carry personal data will be encrypted from now on, and that any contractor will also use encryption.

“The Data Protection Act clearly states that organisations must take appropriate measures to ensure that personal information is kept secure," said Assistant Commissioner Mick Gorrill. "The Home Office recognises the seriousness of this data loss and has agreed to take immediate remedial action. It has also agreed to conduct future audits to ensure compliance with the Act.”

The undertaking commits the Home Office to ensuring that anyone processing personal data for it will comply to the same standards as it, and that it will perform regular audits to ensure that that is the case.

"This case was serious because it involved thousands of individual records, which contained sensitive information on people serving custodial sentences and others previously convicted of criminal offences," said Gorrill. "This breach illustrates that even though a contractor lost the data, it is the data controller (the Home Office) which is responsible for the security of the information. It is vital that sensitive personal information is handled properly and held securely at all times."

The ICO could have issued an enforcement notice against the Home Office, a breach of which would be a criminal offence carrying a fine of up to £5,000. The Home Office agreed to the undertaking "in consideration of the Commissioner not exercising his powers to serve an enforcement notice," the undertaking said.

The ICO has also taken similar action against Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust and Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust.

An unencrypted laptop containing sensitive information on 5,000 people was lost by Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust while Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust lost an unencrypted memory stick containing details on patients and staff.

The two organisations also signed undertakings promising to protect personal information in their care.

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OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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