What They Didn’t Know: Big Brother Watch report on breaches highlights why we need mandatory disclosure

Mainstream media in the U.K. have picked up on a new report based on data obtained under freedom of information requests by Big Brother Watch (BBW).  The Guardian reports, ” Councils breached personal data 1,035 times over three years,” while BBC’s headline is “Personal data ‘lost by 132 councils,” and eWeek’s headline is  “132 Councils Named And Shamed For Data Loss.”

BBW  requested information from 433 local authorities  on the number of incidents and number of individuals affected.  The request covered a three-year timeframe of August 3, 2008 thru August 3, 2011. BBW received full or partial responses from 395  entities (91%).  The report appends results by council with descriptions of the incidents.

I think that one of the most significant findings was how few of the incidents were reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office.  BBW writes:

Of the 1030 incidents we uncovered, councils specified that in just 55 cases was an official notification to the ICO made. Such a low figure suggests that local authorities make different judgements on what should be reported and what does not need to be. Indeed, the fact that so many authorities reported no incidents – while other similar authorities reported several incidents –questions the threshold for reporting and logging of data incidents between authorities.

Extrapolating from what we have seen in this country, what the ICO learns about is clearly only the tip of the iceberg there.  I view the numbers in the BBW report as a significant underestimate of the number of breaches that actually occurred because not only are we not hearing from 9% of entities, but many authorities that did report probably did not detect or learn of all of the breaches they actually experienced. BBC notes, “For  example,  it  does  seem  surprising  that  in  263  local  authorities,  not  even  a  single  mobile   phone  or  memory  stick  was  lost.”   “Surprising” is a very diplomatic word.

Also of note, the wording of the request asked only about breaches where the data were in the custody of a council employee.  The request did not cover breaches where the data were in the custody of a contractor.  Contractors and vendors are involved in a significant minority of breaches and represent 19% of all breaches currently included in DataLossDB.

As more states here imposed mandatory notification and disclosure, we learned more.  The power to audit aside, the U.K. also needs a mandatory disclosure and notification law.  Without it, breaches will continue to be swept under rugs.  But we need not to penalize those who do disclose while others hide their breaches. One of the councils with the worst record, Telford & Wrekin, has responded to the report and illustrates the point about how naming and shaming reactions may discourage honest report and proactive councils.  The council said ” it encouraged staff to report data breaches so it could “learn from and not repeat” mistakes. ” And isn’t that exactly what we want?  Yet those who do may take a reputation hit that those who do not even respond will not suffer.

The BBW report should serve to inform the conversation in the U.K., and I commend them for their yeoman service.  Isn’t it a shame, however, that the government itself did not or could  request and demand these data?

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