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Council punished over theft of laptops from locked room

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Privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has taken action against a local authority which lost two laptop computers, despite the fact that they were stored in a locked office and password-protected.

The ICO has found that the Council was in breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA) and The Highland Council has signed formal undertakings promising to encrypt all mobile devices.

The laptops contained personal details on 1,400 people and included medical information on some of them. The computers were password protected and stored in a locked office, but they were not encrypted. The ICO said that "no additional physical security measures were in place".

"The stolen laptops contained sensitive personal information, including health records," said Ken Macdonald, assistant commissioner. "I urge all councils and their executive teams to ensure that data protection is treated as an important part of corporate governance. Safeguarding sensitive personal information must be embedded in their organisational culture. No public body can afford to take risks with personal details, least of all health records."

A formal undertaking signed by Council chief executive Alistair Dodds commits the Council to encrypting all mobile devices containing personal data by the end of September.

Many of the data breaches involving public bodies in recent months and years have involved lost machines or devices taken from clearly vulnerable locations. The formal undertakings, though, suggest that simply locking computers in a room is not good enough for the ICO.

The undertakings orders the Council to ensure that "physical security measures and procedures are adequate to prevent the theft of devices that contain personal data, the loss of which could cause damage or distress to individuals".

The ICO can ask companies that have breached the DPA to undertake certain behaviour that it thinks will fix the problem. It cannot yet take direct action against companies or organisations for breaches of the eight principles underlying the DPA.

The ICO will be given powers by Government to issue direct fines to organisations whose behaviour represents a knowing or reckless breach of the principles.

Though the extent of the fines is not yet known OUT-LAW.COM revealed this week that the new powers will come into effect in April 2010.

The council's formal undertaking can be read here (pdf).

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

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

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