By Maximilian Clarke

Two councils are being fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office after emailing sensitive information to the wrong recipients.

Worcestershire County Council and North Somerset are being fined £80,000 and £60,000 respectively for the breaches, as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) increasingly attempt to cut down on careloess loss of personal data.

The news comes as the Information Commissioner is pressing for stronger powers to audit data protection compliance across local government and the NHS, which has been responsible for several high profile breaches in recent months, including nurses’ use of social media to openly discuss patients.

“Personal information in cases involving vulnerable people is about the most sensitive personal information imaginable,” said Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham. “It is of great concern that this sort of information was simply sent to the wrong recipients by staff at two separate councils. It was fortunate that in both cases at least the email recipients worked in a similar sector and so were used to handling sensitive information. This mitigating factor has been taken into account in assessing the amount of the penalties.

“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 email 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.”

The ICO has served a monetary penalty of £80,000 to Worcestershire County Council for an incident in March 2011 where a member of staff emailed 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 email, which had only been intended for internal use.

The incidents — which took place during November and December 2010 - occurred when a council employee selected the wrong email 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 emailed 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.

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