ICO To Investigate Civil Service Data Breach Claims

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Channel 4 documentary finds 25 confidentiality breaches per week at the Department for Work and Pensions

An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches has uncovered widespread breaches of privacy rules at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department of Health (DoH).

The programme has discovered that around 25 civil servants at DWP receive a formal warning each week for inappropriately accessing personal details. The number of similar incidents at DoH is around 13 per month.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has contacted the producers of the programme, and will investigate the allegations, which could be classified as criminal offences under the Data Protection Act.

Civil disservice

The programme “Watching the Detectives”, which investigated illegal trade in personal information, revealed that almost 1,000 DWP staff were disciplined in a 10-month period from April 2011 to January 2012 for unlawfully or inappropriately accessing social security records. This information was obtained from the government under the Freedom of Information Act.

The DWP database is thought to be the largest of its kind in Europe, and holds the records of 98 million people, which can be accessed by 200,000 employees of the department and other government agencies.

A spokesman for the DWP said that officials “would not hesitate” to act if any staff had accessed information through inappropriate methods and had improved staff awareness of data protection.

Additionally, over the past year there were at least 13 cases per month of unlawful access to medical records reported to the DoH. Although the DoH does not collect details of all cases of unlawful access, it admitted there had been 158 reported incidents throughout last year.

“Medical records are private and any abuse of their confidentiality is deplorable. Individuals have a right to know that their personal information is protected,” said a spokesman for the DoH.

“The NHS takes protecting individual privacy extremely seriously and if any member of staff is discovered intentionally breaching this, they will be subject to appropriate disciplinary action,” he added.

“We are aware of the allegations made by the Channel 4 programme Dispatches which are, if correct, extremely concerning to the ICO,” a spokesman for the watchdog told TechWeekEurope.

“We are currently making enquiries and will be speaking to the programme makers to obtain the information they have uncovered and investigate whether there have been any breaches of the Data Protection Act. “

“The blagging of personal information is a criminal offence under section 55 of the Act and we will take action where it is clear that an individual has been actively involved in this illegal practice,” he concluded.

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