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Two local authorities have been hit by financial penalties from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) after sending highly sensitive personal information to the wrong recipients.

The penalties have been imposed on North Somerset council and Worcestershire county council as the ICO is pressing for stronger powers to audit data protection compliance across local government and the NHS.

Worcestershire has received an £80,000 fine for an incident in March 2011 in which 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 the 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. It 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.

On this occasion all of the unintended recipients worked for registered organisations used to operating within the council's protocols about handling sensitive data, and the council employee immediately realised their error and attempted to contact all of the unintended recipients to ensure that the information was deleted.

A fine of £60,000 was imposed on North Somerset for a series of incidents in November and December 2010 in which 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.

Although the council had policies and procedures in place, it had failed to ensure that relevant staff received appropriate data protection training. 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.

Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, said: "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."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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