UK: ICO issues monetary penalty of £120,000 to Surrey Council over misdirected emails

Three strikes and you’re out, it seems.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has just issued a monetary fine to Surrey Council after repeated instances of misdirected e-mails containing personal information. From the press release:

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) today served Surrey County Council with a monetary penalty of £120,000 for a serious breach of the Data Protection Act after sensitive personal information was emailed to the wrong recipients on three separate occasions.

Christopher Graham, UK Information Commissioner said:

“This significant penalty fully reflects the seriousness of the case. The fact that sensitive personal information relating to the health and welfare of 241 vulnerable individuals was sent to the wrong people is shocking enough. But when you take into account the two similar breaches that followed, it is clear that Surrey County Council failed to fully address the risks of sending sensitive personal data by email until it was far too late.”

The first incident and most significant of the three, took place on 17 May last year. A member of staff working for one of the council’s Adult Social Care Teams emailed a file containing sensitive personal information relating to 241 individuals’ physical and mental health to the wrong group email address.

The group email address included a large number of transportation companies, including taxi firms, coach and mini bus hire services. The council attempted to recall the email, but was later unable to confirm that all the recipients had destroyed it. As the information was not encrypted or password protected, it had the potential to be viewed by a significant number of unauthorised individuals.

A second misdirected email sent on 22 June 2010 lead to confidential personal data relating to a number of individuals being mistakenly emailed to over one hundred unintended recipients who had, in fact,
registered to receive a council newsletter.

In a third incident, the council’s Children Services department sent confidential sensitive information, which included data relating to an individual’s health, to the wrong internal group email address on 21
January 2011. While the data did not leave the council’s network this breach led to sensitive data being circulated to individuals who should not have received it.

The penalty of £120,000 recognises the council’s failure to ensure that it had appropriate security measures in place to handle sensitive information.

Christopher Graham, UK Information Commissioner continued:

“Any organisation handling sensitive information must have appropriate levels of security in place. Surrey County Council has paid the price for their failings and this case should act as a warning to others that lax data protection practices will not be tolerated.”

Following the incidents the council has taken action to improve its policies on information security. This includes the development of an early warning system which alerts staff when sensitive information is being sent to an external email address. The council has also improved the training it provides to its staff and will ensure that any group email addresses are clearly identifiable.

Related: A copy of the monetary penalty notice is available on the ICO’s web site.

This is the 6th monetary fine the ICO has handed out and the fourth to a council.

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