Official claims that "your data is safe with us" suffered another body blow at the weekend with revelations of a dramatic rise in hacking of the UK’s tax and benefit mega-database by council staff.
In most cases, councils appear to have concluded that the appropriate penalty for such unlawful prying into personal lives has been nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
The scale of the unofficial snooping came to light following a series of FoI requests by the Mail, which disclosed that there had been 124 security breaches by council staff last year – up sixfold from a mere 20 in 2008/9.
Town Hall snoopers have been looking at accounts belonging to friends, family and neighbours – as well as celebrities. Although some 26 employees were dismissed – and eight resigned during the disciplinary process - the majority were let off lightly: 37 received a written or verbal warning, while 43 suffered no penalty at all.
The database, maintained by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), is a monster: it records details of every individual issued with a National Insurance number: it includes details on the ethnicity, address, and tax status of 85 million individuals (both the living and the dead). The system also holds full income details for anyone in receipt of any form of benefit.
It can be accessed by workers at the 445 local authorities across the UK, as well as 80,000 DWP employees and 60,000 workers from other government departments.
Talking to the Reg this morning, Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, said: "These figures are a dismal indictment of councils and the people we pay to work in them.
"That the number of officers conducting this illegal snooping is on the increase is a real cause for concern. "This just goes to show that our private data is not safe with councils – the less they have of it, the better."
We also asked the DWP to comment. In an earlier statement, a spokesman for the DWP was reported as saying: "DWP thoroughly deals with the risk to CIS by the small number of employees who commit unauthorised access."
However, the DWP is understood not to hold details of the number of its own staff caught misusing CIS data.
This morning, a spokesman initially suggested that as the breaches were committed by Council workers they were not the responsibility of the DWP. However, they did promise to get back on the overall security issues which, as the legal data processor, they might possibly have some responsibility for. ®
This news comes in a week when the coalition government followed through on promises to roll back the use of bin chipping to pry on individual household recycling – but failed to put a stop to the uploading of Summary Care Records in the NHS. With other key systems – such as Contactpoint – coming up for review, we may soon discover just how deep is their commitment to rolling back the database state.