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An NHS Trust is disputing a record fine the Information Commissioner's Office has levelled on it for leaving tons of data on patients and staff on hard drives that were sold on eBay instead of being destroyed.

Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust was served a civil monetary penalty of £325,000, the highest handed out since the ICO got the power to lay financial smackdowns in April 2010. The Trust said it didn't agree with the ICO's findings and was appealing the fine.

The ICO claims that the private data of tens of thousands of patients and employees was left on the sold hard drives, including information from the HIV and Genito Urinary Medicine department, which included personal identifiers like dates of birth and occupations as well as sensitive medical data on their STD test results and diagnoses and sexual preferences. The database also held the names and dates of birth of 1,527 HIV positive patients.

The Trust decommissioned a number of hard drives in March 2008, which were then stuck in commercial storage in a locked room watched by CCTV. Two years later, around a thousand of the drives were moved to Brighton General Hospital and put in a room that could only be accessed with a key code.

The Trust's IT service provider Sussex Health Informatics Service (HIS) asked its usual subcontractor to take care of destroying the drives, but that firm couldn't do it, so HIS asked a different company to do it.

The ICO discovered that HIS never entered into a proper contract with the new contractor, even though it offered one, and only performed basic checks on the credentials of the one individual who ran it. The Trust didn't even know that HIS had employed this contractor.

The unnamed individual came to the hospital on two occasions in the autumn of 2010 to destroy the drives, but they weren't supervised all the time and the hospital never got a proper certificate of destruction with all the serial numbers listed.

That December a data recovery company bought four of the hard drives online from a seller who had bought them from the individual and reported the data breach.

The ICO said that the Trust initially tried to tell the ICO that it was just those four drives that had been sold and all the other hard drives waiting to be destroyed were secure, but it was rumbled in 2011 when a university said that one of their students had bought more drives, 15 of which held the Trust's data.

Eventually, the ICO found out that at least 232 of the Trust's hard drives were sold.

The Trust has said it doesn't agree with the ICO's findings and it is pursuing an appeal with the Information Tribunal.

“We dispute the Information Commissioner’s findings, especially that we were reckless, a requirement for any fine," chief exec Duncan Selbie said in a canned statement.

"We arranged for an experienced NHS IT service provider to safely dispose of our redundant hard drives and acted swiftly to recover, without exception, those that their sub-contractor placed on eBay.

"No sensitive data has therefore entered the public domain. We reported all of this voluntarily to the Information Commissioner’s Office, who told me last summer that this was not a case worthy of a fine," he added.

Selbie said that the ICO had ignored its attempts to explain the situation.

"It is a matter of frank surprise that we still do not know why they have imposed such an extraordinary fine despite repeated attempts to find out, including a freedom of information request which they interestingly refused on the basis that it would 'prejudice the monetary penalty process'," he complained.

"In a time of austerity, we have to ensure more than ever that we deliver the best and safest care to our patients with the money that we have available. We simply cannot afford to pay a £325,000 fine and are therefore appealing to the Information Tribunal." ®

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