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British Pregnancy Advice Service fined £200k for Anon hack, data protection breaches

Charity slapped by ICO for insecure user info storage

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The British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) has been fined £200,000 after a serious breach exposed thousands of people’s personal details to a malicious hacker.

The hacker (a self-identified member of Anonymous) threatened to publish the names of people who sought advice on abortion, pregnancy and contraception.

The miscreant - subsequently identified as James Jeffery, 29, from Wednesbury, West Midlands - defaced the service's website with the Anonymous logo before making the threats, which were never carried out. Jeffery did, however, leak the name and log-on details of a BPAS administrator.

The former software engineer was arrested days after the attack, prosecuted and ultimately sentenced to 32 months in prison back in April 2012 for the attack on BPAS and other admitted hacking offences.

At the time of the original breach in March 2012, BPAS stressed that no medical or personal information regarding women who received treatment at the service had been obtained during the attack.

However an investigation by data privacy watchdogs at the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) found the charity "didn’t realise" its own website was storing the names, address, date of birth and telephone number of people who asked for a call back for advice on pregnancy issues. The personal data wasn’t stored securely and a vulnerability in the website’s code allowed the hacker to access the system and siphon off the highly sensitive information.

That negligence in handling sensitive data earned BPAS a hefty £200k fine; not a record, but towards the upper range of fines levied by the ICO.

David Smith, deputy commissioner and director of data protection, said: “Data protection is critical and getting it right requires vigilance. The British Pregnancy Advice Service didn’t realise their website was storing this information, didn’t realise how long it was being retained for and didn’t realise the website wasn’t being kept sufficiently secure.”

“Ignorance is no excuse. It is especially unforgiveable when the organisation is handing information as sensitive as that held by the BPAS. Data controllers must take active steps to ensure that the personal data they are responsible for is kept safe," Smith added in an official ICO statement.

The ICO investigation found that as well as failing to keep the personal information secure, the BPAS had also breached the Data Protection Act by keeping the call back details for five years longer than was necessary for its purposes. ®

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