Ministry of Justice fined £180,000 for losing sensitive data on prisoners
The unencrypted backup drive went missing at HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire last May.
The Ministry of Justice has been heavily criticised and fined £180,000 by the data watchdog for failing to safeguard sensitive and confidential information about thousands of prisoners.
A backup hard drive containing data on 2,935 prisoners went missing at HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire last May. The information included details of links to organised crime, health information, history of drug misuse and material about victims and visitors. The device was not encrypted.
This follows a similar case in October 2011, when the information commissioner’s office (ICO) was alerted to the loss of another unencrypted hard drive containing the details of 16,000 prisoners at HMP High Down in Surrey.
After the first loss, the prison service was given new hard drives in May 2012 for all of the 75 prisons across England and Wales still using back-up hard drives in this way. The devices were able to encrypt the information stored on them. But the ICO’s investigation into the latest loss found that the prison service did not realise the encryption option on the new hard drives needed to be turned on to work correctly.
As a result, highly sensitive information was insecurely handled by prisons across England and Wales for over a year, leading to the latest data loss at HMP Erlestoke. If the hard drives in both of these cases had been encrypted, the information would have remained secure despite their loss, the ICO noted.
“The fact that a government department with security oversight for prisons can supply equipment to 75 prisons throughout England and Wales without properly understanding, let alone telling them, how to use it beggars belief,” said Stephen Eckersley, ICO head of enforcement.
“The result was that highly sensitive information about prisoners and vulnerable members of the public, including victims, was insecurely handled for over a year. This failure to provide clear oversight was only addressed when a further serious breach occurred and the devices were finally set up correctly.
“This is simply not good enough and we expect government departments to be an example of best practice when it comes to looking after people’s information. We hope this penalty sends a clear message that organisations must not only have the right equipment available to keep people’s information secure, but must understand how to use it.”
Simon Rice, group manager at ICO, warned that people in charge of data were still failing to take appropriate action to safeguard information.
In a blog for the ICO, he wrote: “Using appropriate encryption can be a simple and effective means to protect personal data in these circumstances, and one which we advise all organisations to take if the loss of the data could cause damage and distress to the individuals affected. However, evidence shows that data controllers are still not addressing the problem.”