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Council fined £70k after burglars nick vulnerable kids' files

Second data law breach in two years

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The UK's privacy watchdog has fined the London Borough of Barnet £70k ($111k) after the local authority lost extremely sensitive information about young children for the second time in two years.

The latest loss occurred when a social worker took paper records home to work on them out of office hours. The staffer’s home was burgled in April last year, and the thieves made off with a laptop bag containing the documents and an encrypted computer.

The papers including the names, addresses, dates of birth and "details of the sexual activities" of 15 vulnerable youngsters. A subsequent investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office found fault with procedures at Barnet Council relating to the handling of paper records. The borough's policy included guidance for staff on handling sensitive files, but the measures failed to explain how the information should be kept secure.

The fine comes after the council promised in June 2010 to improve its information handling procedures following the theft of an unencrypted device containing personal data from an employee’s home. The council eventually introduced a paper handling policy, but this was not in place at the time of the second loss - hence the ICO's decision to levy a fairly substantial fine on the public body.

Simon Entwisle, the ICO’s director of operations, commented: "The potential for damage and distress in this case is obvious. It is therefore extremely disappointing the council had not put in place sufficient measures in time to avoid this second loss."

"While we are pleased that Barnet Council has now taken action to keep the personal data they use secure, it is vitally important that organisations have the correct guidance in place to keep sensitive paper records taken outside of the office safe. This includes storing papers containing sensitive information separately from laptops," he added.

The ICO gained power to levy fines in relation to data privacy breaches that could be blamed on either lax procedures or negligence in April 2010. Since then 16 organisations including a police force, health authorities and local councils have been fined over data breaches. Two private sector firms - defunct copyright infringement ambulance-chasers ACS:Law and employment agency A4e - are also among those fined for data privacy transgressions. ®

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