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Infosec Query

by msecadm4921

Are too many people still asleep at the helm, when it comes to data protectionand securing information? So the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas asked in a speech.

The number of data breaches reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rose to 277 since HMRC lost 25 million child benefit records nearly a year ago. New figures, released in October by the ICO, include 80 reported breaches by the private sector, 75 within the NHS and other health bodies, 28 reported by central government, 26 by local authorities and 47 by the rest of the public sector. The ICO is investigating 30 of the most serious cases.

In a speech at the RSA Conference Europe, Richard Thomas highlighted the risks associated with large databases, the need for tougher sanctions to deter data breaches and he called on chief executives to take responsibility for the personal information their organisations hold. Accountability rests at the top, he claimed. CEOs must make sure that their organisations have the right policies and procedures in place, that privacy by design features are incorporated in the technology their organisations use and that staff are properly trained to counter the risks.

The Information Commissioner said: ‘It is alarming that despite high profile data losses, the threat of enforcement action, a plethora of reports on data handling and clear ICO guidance, the flow of data breaches and sloppy information handling continues. We have already seen examples where data loss or abuse has led to fake credit card transactions, witnesses at risk of physical harm or intimidation, offenders at risk from vigilantes, fake applications for tax credits, falsified Land Registry records and mortgage fraud. Addresses of service personnel, police and prison officers and battered women have also been exposed. Sometimes lives may be at risk … The number of breaches brought to our attention is serious and worrying. I recognise that some breaches are being discovered because of improved checks and audits as a welcome result of taking data security more seriously. More laptops have now been encrypted and thousands of staff have been trained. But the number of breaches notified to us must still be well short of the total.

“How many PCs and laptops are junked with live data? How many staff do not tell their managers when they have lost a memory stick, laptop or disc? Many losses are probably simply undetected. Much more worrying is where – in an age of ever increasing cyber-crime, illegal access and identity theft – organisations are not even aware that personal information which they hold has been stolen, obtained by fraud or otherwise fallen into the wrong hands. Worse still, there are still organisations which are not aware of the risks that they face with any collection of data and have not taken adequate steps to deal with those risks. Worst of all, are those organisations who have simply failed to understand just how much personal information they are accumulating through more and more and ever-cheaper technology.”

Richard Thomas added: ‘Personal information is now the lifeblood of government and business. Used properly and intelligently, personal information can lead to better customer service, improved efficiency, more effective law enforcement and protection of the vulnerable and a better quality of life for everyone. But this means respecting and protecting people’s privacy and personal information – data protection – has never been more important. As government, public, private and third sectors harness new technology to collect vast amounts of personal information, the risks of information being abused increases. It is time for the penny to drop. The more databases that are set up and the more information exchanged from one place to another, the greater the risk of things going wrong. The more you centralise data collection, the greater the risk of multiple records going missing or wrong decisions about real people being made. The more you lose the trust and confidence of customers and the public, the more your prosperity and standing will suffer. Put simply, holding huge collections of personal data brings significant risks.”

The ICO has argued that its powers, sanctions and resources – fixed in another era – are now wholly inadequate and that a stronger approach is required to help prevent unacceptable information handling. Earlier this year Parliament decided that the ICO should have the power to impose substantial penalties for deliberate or reckless breaches. The ICO is working with the government to ensure this measure is implemented as soon as possible. The threat and reality of substantial penalties will concentrate minds and act as a real deterrent, it is claimed. According to the body, the data protection notification fee for the largest organisations needs to be increased to give the ICO the resources we need to do its job properly. The ICO is also looking forward to new powers to undertake inspections and audits of data controllers.

Richard Thomas is sceptical about placing a statutory duty on organisations to notify people directly whenever a breach occurs; it is doubtful that an appropriate law could satisfactorily distinguish in advance between situations where notification is needed and those where it is not. Each breach carries different levels of risk and requires a different response. Following serious data breaches in the past year, the Information Commissioner’s Office has taken enforcement action against Orange Personal Communications Services Ltd, HMRC, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, Virgin Media Ltd, Skipton Financial Services, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Carphone Warehouse and Talk Talk.

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