A contractor who lost an unencrypted memory stick with confidential data during a visit down the pub has landed two London housing bodies in trouble with data privacy watchdogs.
The memory stick contained details of over 20,000 tenants of Lewisham Homes and 6,200 tenants of Wandle Housing Association. More seriously, 800 of the exposed Lewisham records contained tenants' bank account details. Fortunately no harm was done because the lost stick was safely found and handed in to the police.
Even so, both housing bodies have been publicly named and shamed over the lapse by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which ordered them to improve their data security practices, in particular by making sure all portable devices used to store personal information are encrypted.
In a statement, Sally-Anne Poole, acting head of enforcement at the ICO, said: "Saving personal information onto an unencrypted memory stick is as risky as taking hard copy papers out of the office. Luckily, the device was handed in, and there is no suggestion that the data was misused. But this incident could so easily have been avoided if the information had been properly protected."
Both housing organisations were held responsible for their contractor's (likely drunken) lapse and will now be subjected to a stricter monitoring regime. The incident represents the latest in a long list of UK public sector organisations failing to protect sensitive information they hold on the public since the high-profile HMRC lost child benefit discs screw-up four years ago.
Mark Fullbrook, UK and Ireland director of identity management firm Cyber-Ark, said many organisations have still failed to learn any lessons from previous data protection screw-ups.
"Using a memory stick to transport sensitive information may be convenient but it's certainly not secure," Fullbrook said. "And whilst in this case the memory stick was returned to its rightful owners, should it have fallen into the wrong hands, the repercussions could have been severe.
"There have been enough warning signs now for organisations to start getting the hint; sensitive information must be afforded the right level of protection. When it comes to securely sharing information, whether between contractors or internal staff, secure file transfer is the only truly effective way to safely and efficiently exchange sensitive information with third parties," he added. ®