UK: Emails reveal how Rotherham Council bosses ‘covered up’ laptop theft details and didn’t even get a slap on the wrist from the ICO

Back in February, this site noted a report indicating that Roterham Council had covered up the theft of 21 laptops containing sensitive information about victims of child sexual exploitation.

Now more details have emerged about the cover up.  Chris Burn of The Star reports on documents obtained under Freedom of Information from the Information Commissioner’s Office. These documents, some of which are correspondence between the ICO and the council, and some of which are partially redacted internal council memos, paint a disturbing picture of how those affected by the breach were never even notified – allegedly on the advice of the police:

On December 12, Mr Woolfenden sent an email saying he had discussed the theft with the police and whether those whose names were contained on the stolen laptops should be informed about what had happened.

The published version of the email says: “I shared the adult names with the police and discussed with the Detective Inspector [name redacted] with responsibility for safeguarding. Their decision is not to inform the named adults on the list.

“I have discussed the children with [name redacted] and risk assessed the merit of telling or not telling some or all of the named individuals.

“In conclusion, we felt it was in the interests of all the named individuals that they should not be informed.”

So the council did not notify those whose sensitive information was on the stolen laptops and it did not even notify the ICO, it seems. According to The Star, the ICO only found out about the theft due to media coverage. And when the ICO contact the council:

The council responded in April 2012 and initially stated that five of the laptops, which were all protected from unauthorised access, contained a ‘small amount of personal data’.

It said one of the laptops contained notes of a meeting relating to a police investigation into child sexual exploitation, including the names of the teenagers concerned and some of their dates of birth and addresses.

Information stored on the other laptops included names of children in care and details of Probation Service letters about prisoners who were due to leave jail.

But Rotherham Council said it considered no ‘sensitive personal data’ was contained in any of the laptops.

Despite all the evidence of cover-up, the ICO determined that no further action would be taken against the council.

In an updated version of this same report, Chris Burn reports the council’s response to an inquiry from the paper:

A Rotherham Council spokesman said there was ‘no merit’ in reopening the matter after being asked by The Star whether people who were affected would now be informed of what had happened.

A council spokesman said: “The remedial steps taken at the time were appropriate and completed to the satisfaction of the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“An investigation into the incident found that it would be highly unlikely that any personal data could be accessed given the security arrangements in place on the laptops, and to notify those affected would have caused them unnecessary distress. Given this, there would be no merit in reopening this matter at this time.”

So to review: if a council covers up a breach involving sensitive information and paternalistically decides that they shouldn’t tell you about it for your sake, there’s really no serious consequences. So why shouldn’t every council just cover up and fail to report breaches to the ICO?

Read more on this council’s incidents on The Star.

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