The proliferation of ever larger centralised databases is increasing the risk of people’s personal data being lost or abused, the government’s official privacy watchdog claims today.
The warning from the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, comes as he discloses that reported data losses have soared in the past year.
The number of data breaches – including lost laptops and memory sticks containing sensitive personal records – reported to him has risen to 277 since the loss of 25 million child benefit records was disclosed nearly a year ago.
The new figures show that the information commissioner has recently launched investigations into 30 of the most serious cases. The 277 breaches include 80 reported 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.
‘It is alarming that despite high-profile data losses, the threat of enforcement action, a plethora of reports on data handling and clear information commission guidance, the flow of data breaches and sloppy information handling continues,’ Thomas says in a speech today.
His warning follows an admission yesterday by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, that the technical work on creating a giant centralised database of all email, text, phone and web traffic will go ahead despite the fact that ministers have decided to delay the legislation needed to set it up and instead put the proposal out to consultation.
The information commissioner says that data losses have already led to fake credit card transactions, witnesses at risk of physical harm or intimidation, offenders at risk from vigilantes, 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.’
Thomas acknowledges that the rise in the number of breaches reported to him may be because of improved checks and audits as a welcome result of organisations taking data security more seriously.
He says: ‘More laptops have 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 disk?’
The information commissioner warns that as new technology is harnessed to collect vast amounts of personal information, the risks of it being abused increase: ‘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 something 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.’
His warning follows an admission yesterday by Jacqui Smith that the technical work on creating a giant centralised database of all email, text, phone and web traffic will go ahead, despite the fact that ministers have decided to delay the legislation needed to set it up and instead put the proposal out to consultation.
The home secretary yesterday defended the idea of a huge new database when she appeared before parliament’s human rights committee, telling MPs and peers that 95% of security and organised crime investigations since 2004 had made considerable use of communications data. ‘It is fundamentally important to ensure that convictions are secured. We face a fundamental change in the way that technology is going in relationship to communications data,’ she said, arguing that without such a database, one of the most important tools for law enforcement agencies was likely to be eroded.
Her insistence that the technical work in Whitehall – known as the interception modernisation programme – will continue while consultation takes place on the project next year follows criticism from the director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, who warned that the government was in danger of ‘breaking the back of freedom’ by the relentless pressure of a security state.
The home secretary refused to respond to the DPP’s criticism yesterday, apart from observing that he had not made such comments in cross-government talks on the project