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Two councils hit with big fines for laptop blunder

Unencrypted data gaffe hits Hounslow, Ealing

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The UK's information watchdog has slapped two London councils with hefty penalties for failing to encrypt personal data on laptops that were stolen by thieves.

Ealing Council and Hounslow Council were both found to be in serious breach of the Data Protection Act, ruled the Information Commissioner's Office today.

It said two laptops that contained details of approximately 1,700 people were stolen from an employee's home. Around 1,000 of the individuals were clients of Ealing Council and almost 700 were on Hounslow Council's books.

Although the laptops were password-protected, the data itself was unencrypted, noted the ICO.

The failure of both councils, whose out-of-hours service is provided by Ealing Council, to encrypt the laptops was in breach of council policy.

"There is no evidence to suggest that the data held on the computers has been accessed and no complaints from clients have been received by the data controllers to date," said the ICO.

However, it handed down a £80,000 penalty to Ealing Council and a £70,000 penalty to Hounslow Council because the theft of the unencrypted laptops represented what it described as "a significant risk to the clients' privacy."

The ICO said Ealing Council breached the Data Protection Act by issuing an unencrypted laptop to an employee having ignored its own policies on the handling of sensitive client information.

Hounslow breached the Act by failing to have a written contract in place with Ealing Council to ensure the procedure for operating the service was adequately securing client data.

The ICO said that both councils had since tightened their security policies and contacted the individuals affected by the unencrypted data blunder.

"Both council have paid the price for lax data protection practices," said ICO deputy commissioner David Smith.

"I hope all organisations that handle personal information will make sure their houses are in order - otherwise they too may have to learn the hard way." ®

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