More Monetary Penalties

November 28, 2011

The Information Commissioner’s Office has served monetary penalty notice on North Somerset Council and Worcestershire County Council after staff at both authorities sent highly sensitive personal information to the wrong recipients.

The Worcestershire monetary penalty of £80,000 arose when, in March 2011, a member of staff e-mailed highly sensitive personal information about a large number of vulnerable people to 23 unintended recipients. The error occurred when the employee clicked on an additional contact list before sending the e-mail, which had been intended only for internal use. The ICO found that Worcestershire County Council had failed to take appropriate measures to guard against the unauthorised processing of personal data, such as providing employees with appropriate training and clearly distinguishing between internal and external e-mail distribution lists. The council had also failed to properly consider an alternative means of handling the information, such as holding it in a secure system that could be accessed only by members of staff who needed to see it. Fortunately, on the occasion in question all of the unintended recipients worked for registered organisations used to operating within the council’s protocols about handling sensitive data. Worcestershire County Council has explained to the ICO that as soon as the breach occurred the council employee immediately realised the error and attempted to contact all of the unintended recipients to ensure that the information was deleted.

North Somerset Council has also been served with a monetary penalty of £60,000 for a serious breach of the Data Protection Act where a council employee sent five e-mails, two of which contained highly sensitive and confidential information about a child’s serious case review, to the wrong NHS employee. The incidents – which took place during November and December 2010 – occurred when a council employee selected the wrong e-mail address when creating a personal distribution list. The council employee was told about the error by the unintended recipient shortly after the first incident took place. Despite this, information was e-mailed to the same NHS employee on a further three occasions. The issue was then raised at senior level. Two of the council’s Assistant Directors highlighted the issue with the employee on 9 December but a fifth and final incident took place later that same day. The NHS organisation verbally confirmed to North Somerset Council that it destroyed the emails after their own internal investigation was complete. The ICO’s enquiries found that, although North Somerset Council had some policies and procedures in place, it had failed to ensure that relevant staff received appropriate data protection training. In response to these incidents, the ICO has recommended that the council adopts a more secure means to send information electronically, including encryption and ensuring that managers sign off email distribution lists.

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said:

‘There is too much of this sort of thing going on across local government. People who handle highly sensitive personal information need to understand the real weight of responsibility that comes with keeping it secure. Of course this includes having the correct training and policies in place, but it’s also about common sense. Considering whether e-mail is the appropriate medium, checking and double checking that the right recipients will receive the information – and measures like encryption and data minimisation – should be routine. I hope these penalties send a clear message to those working in the social care sector. The Information Commissioner takes this sloppiness seriously – and so should you.’

Following the incidents, both North Somerset and Worcestershire councils have undertaken substantial remedial action to reduce the likelihood of further breaches.