Lancashire Constabulary today became the first police force in England and Wales to have a fine slapped on it by the UK's data privacy watchdog following a major breach in data security.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) served the £70,000 fine after a missing person’s report containing sensitive information about a 15-year-old girl was found on a street in Blackpool.
The document included details of the girl’s age, address, contact information and sexuality, as well as mentioning that she had previously been raped. Personal details relating to 14 other individuals – including the girl’s original attacker – were also included in the report.
According to the ICO, the report was discovered by a member of the public on 23 July 2011 after is believed to have fallen out of a police vehicle where it had been left for several days by an officer trying to track the missing youth.
The report was subsequently given to a local paper, which published an anonymised story about the document's discovery and contents.
Steve Eckersley, head of enforcement at the ICO, said in a statement: “The fact that information as sensitive as this could go missing without anybody realising is extremely worrying, and shows that Lancashire Constabulary failed to have the necessary governance, policies and suitable training in place to keep the personal information they handle secure.
“The loss of this information and the news that it had been leaked to a local newspaper is likely to have been extremely distressing for all involved.
“While we are pleased that Lancashire Constabulary has agreed to take action to make sure people’s information is safe, it is vitally important that police forces have effective data protection policies in place for electronic and paper based systems. This includes keeping a record of where personal information is being stored and used.”
The ICO said its investigation found that the Constabulary did not record when sensitive personal information was taken outside of the police station. Officers were not provided with secure bags for storing personal information and received no specific training on how to look after hard copy documents outside the station.
Lancashire Constabulary has now signed an undertaking committing the organisation to take action to keep the personal information it handles secure.
This includes ensuring that a written policy is in place detailing employees’ specific responsibilities when removing personal data from the station, as well as its subsequent use, protection and return. The Constabulary will also make sure that its staff are fully informed of these new changes and receive training on how to follow them.
The ICO has the power to fine organisations up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act occurring on or after 6 April 2010 or serious breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.
In January, the ICO said it was considering levying a record £375,000 fine on the Brighton and Sussex General hospital following the theft of unencrypted hard drives in September 2010. The hospital is challenging the penalty.
The ICO's biggest fine to date is a £130,000 penalty issued to Powys County Council in December 2011 for failing to protect the personal data of vulnerable young people.