Personal information lost or stolen in thousands of data breaches at councils

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Sensitive personal information has been lost or stolen in thousands of data breaches by councils, new research reveals.

In one case a social worker left papers containing confidential records about children and information linked to sex offenders on a train.

Another saw a CCTV operator use cameras to watch a colleague’s wedding.

Local authorities recorded a total of 4236 data breaches in three years from April 2011 - a rate of almost four every day, the study by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch found.

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Sensitive or confidential information was compromised in 260 of the cases, while breaches involved personal data linked to children on 658 occasions.

In some cases council staff were found to have accessed material “for personal interest”.

One incident involved an unencrypted laptop containing the details of 200 schoolchildren which was stolen from Aberdeenshire City Council. It was later recovered.

No disciplinary action was taken but the matter was reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Big Brother Watch called for custodial sentences to be introduced for the most serious data breaches after finding just one in 10 resulted in disciplinary action and only one led to a prosecution.

Director Emma Carr said: “Despite local councils being trusted with increasing amounts of our personal data, this report highlights that they are simply not able to say it is safe with them.

“A number of examples show shockingly lax attitudes to protecting confidential information. For so many children and young people to have had their personal information compromised is deeply disturbing.

“With only a tiny fraction of staff being disciplined or dismissed, this raises the question of how seriously local councils take protecting the privacy of the public.”

The report, based on responses to freedom of information requests, said data was lost or stolen on 401 occasions, while there were 628 instances of incorrect or inappropriate information being shared on emails, letters and faxes.

More than 5000 letters were sent to the wrong address or included content meant for another recipient, while there were 99 cases of unauthorised access to or disclosing of data.

Researchers also found that a total of 197 mobile phones, computers, tablets and USBs were lost or stolen.

More than two in three incidents led to no disciplinary action at all, while staff resigned in 39 cases and 50 employees were dismissed.

Freedom of information requests were sent to all local authorities in the United Kingdom. Big Brother Watch said 167 town halls reported no data breaches at all over the period.

Local authorities that reported the highest number of data breaches - April 1, 2011 to April 1, 2014, according to Big Brother Watch:

Brighton and Hove 190

Sandwell 187

Telford and Wrekin 175

Peterborough 160

Herefordshire 157

Glasgow City 128

Doncaster 106

Essex 106

Lincolnshire 103

Wolverhampton 100

Hammersmith and Fulham 99