ICO probes NHS clinic's data blunder that exposed HIV+ status of 800 patients

56 Dean Street drops perhaps the worst DP clanger of all time


The ICO is looking into a data blunder at 56 Dean Street, a sexual health clinic operated as part of Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust, after it emailed the HIV positive status of nearly 800 patients to the entire group.

The data breach was committed through the email circulation of the clinic's "OptionE" newsletter to HIV positive patients, which did not use the “BCC” field to protect those patients' identities, and instead listed all of them in the "CC" field.

A spokesperson from the Information Commissioner's Office told The Register that the watchdog was "aware of an incident regarding the 56 Dean Street clinic and is making enquiries."

A copy of the email and subsequent responses were published by beyondpositive, an online magazine for people living with HIV in the UK.

The initial email circulated the clinic's latest newsletter and revealed all of the 780 recipients' emails and names in the "CC" fields.

A second email was quickly sent out in an attempt to recall the previous missive, requesting recipients delete the previous email. However this, again, included the email addresses of all recipients in the "CC" field.

Finally, an apology email from Theresa Burns did manage to BCC the recipients, providing a helpline for the affected patients and stating:

We apologise for this error ... Clearly this is completely unacceptable. We are urgently investigating how this has happened and I promise you that we will take steps to ensure it never happens again. We will send you the outcome of the investigation.

The Register was unable to contact a representative for the clinic at time of publication, but it has seen an email sent out to patients, which explained the action taken by the NHS Trust immediately after the data gaffe had occurred.

It said it had reported the mishap to the health service's information watchdog, suspended group email messages from being sent until "human error" can be prevented and informed the Trust's board of the "serious incident".

An internal investigation is also under way, apparently.

The Guardian quoted a spokesbeing who claimed that the breach was caused by a human error and added that the particular employee responsible was distraught. ®

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