Ealing and Hounslow councils slapped with huge data loss fine

Ealing and Hounslow councils have each been slapped with fines by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The named and shamed pair have been found guilty of “serious breaches” of the Data Protection Act after the loss of two unencrypted laptops containing sensitive personal information.

Ealing Council has been hit with a huge £80,000 fine while a £70,000 fine was dished out to Hounslow Council.

The move by the watchdog has been welcomed by Big Brother Watch, which has said that “for far too long, councils have viewed protecting the data of residents as an afterthought rather than an issue of paramount importance.”

Ealing Council provides an out of hours service on behalf of both councils, which is operated by nine staff who work from home. The team receive contact from a variety of sources and rely on laptops to record information about individuals.

However, things went a bit Pete Tong when two laptops containing the details of around 1,700 individuals were stolen from an employee’s home.

Almost 1,000 of the details were of clients of Ealing Council and almost 700 were clients of Hounslow Council. Both laptops were password protected but unencrypted – despite this being in breach of both councils’ policies.

The ICO said that Ealing Council also breached the Data Protection Act by issuing an unencrypted laptop to a member of staff in breach of its own policies. This method of working had been in place for several years and there were insufficient checks that relevant policies were being followed or understood by staff.

Hounslow Council breached the Act by failing to have a written contract in place with Ealing Council. Hounslow also did not monitor Ealing Council’s procedures for operating the service securely.

However, the ICO gave the councils some grace, claiming that there was no evidence to suggest that the data held on the computers had been accessed and there had been no complaints from those who had their data stored on the laptops.

Daniel Hamilton, campaign director at Big Brother Watch told TechEye: “The Information Commissioner is right to act so decisively against these two councils.  For far too long, councils have viewed protecting the data of residents as an afterthought rather than an issue of paramount importance.

“The size of the fine should serve to put other councils on notice and send a clear message that such breaches are no longer acceptable.  Working with the ICO, it is crucial that councils improve staff training to ensure that the data security concerns are paramount in the minds of their employees”.

Deputy Commissioner, David Smith, said: “Of the four monetary penalties that we have served so far, three  concern the loss of unencrypted laptops. Where personal information is involved, password protection for portable devices is simply not enough.

“The penalty against Hounslow Council also makes clear that an organisation can’t simply hand over the handling of the personal information it is responsible for to somebody else unless they ensure that the information is properly protected.

“Both councils have paid the price for lax data protection practices. I hope all organisations that handle personal information will make sure their houses are in order – otherwise they too may have to learn the hard way.”

Following the incident, both councils contacted affected individuals. Both authorities have also put significantly improved policies in place for information security and have agreed to consider an audit by the ICO.