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ICO smacks Welsh council with record £130k fine

Vulnerable child's data sent to same stranger who received the last breach...

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Data privacy watchdogs have fined Powys County Council £130,000, the highest fine the ICO has ever levied, for failing to protect the personal data of vulnerable young people.

The Information Commissioner’s Office got out the big stick to punish the Welsh council after it sent details of a child protection case to the wrong recipient, as a statement by the ICO explains.

Two separate reports about child protection cases were sent to the same shared printer. It is thought that two pages from one report were then mistakenly collected with the papers from another case and were sent out without being checked. The recipient mistakenly received the two pages of the report and knew the identities of the parent and child whose personal details were included in the papers. The recipient made a complaint to the council and a further complaint was also submitted by the recipient’s mother via her MP.

In a horrible twist, the serious privacy breach follows a similar but less serious incident in June last year, when a social worker sent information relating to a vulnerable child to the same recipient. The ICO also made it clear that the recipient knew the parent/s and the child/s named in the reports in both instances.

Powys was advised to introduce mandatory training and to tighten up its security measures following the first incident. Its failure to apply this properly has resulted in the whopper fine, which will ultimately come out of the pockets of local council tax-payers. The council has also been served with an enforcement notice.

The penalty is the highest that the ICO has served since it received the power in April 2010. Most but not all of these fines have been levied against local authorities, who seem particularly lax about data security. The ICO also fined ACS:Law, the one-man law firm which controversially harried alleged file-sharers, over a security breach arising from a hack attack.

Assistant Commissioner for Wales Anne Jones said: “This is the third UK council in as many weeks to receive a monetary penalty for disclosing sensitive information about vulnerable people. It’s the most serious case yet and it has attracted a record fine. The distress that this incident would have caused to the individuals involved is obvious and made worse by the fact that the breach could have been prevented if Powys County Council had acted on our original recommendations.

“The ICO has also issued a legal notice ordering the council to take action to improve its data handling. Failure to do so will result in legal action being taken through the courts.

“There is clearly an underlying problem with data protection in social services departments and we will be meeting with stakeholders from across the UK’s local government sector to discuss how we can support them in addressing these problems,” she added.

Christian Toon, European head of information security at information management services Iron Mountain, said the Powys breach high;lighted the need for user education.

“In so many cases these incidents are the result of carelessness and lack of thought rather than any malicious intention," Toon said. "Having said that, the public has the right to expect that information about them is handled with care at all times. For public sector organisations this should mean committing to regular staff training and the creation of robust guidelines that everyone understands and buys into – employees must be encouraged to think before they act.”

“There is no excuse; basic errors such as printing highly sensitive and private child protection reports to a shared printer should not be happening in a modern and accountable government organisation,” he concluded. ®

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