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UK: Data on thousands of prisoners has been lost

UK: Data on thousands of prisoners has been lost

Personal information on every prisoner in England and Wales has been lost, the British government said Thursday, including the names, dates of birth, and addresses of more than 30,000 repeat offenders.
A spokeswoman for Britain's Home Office, the country's crime-fighting body, said a contractor mislaid an unencrypted memory stick containing the names and dates of birth of 84,000 inmates _ England and Wales' entire prison population.
The stick also carried the home addresses of 33,000 criminals who had committed six or more recordable convictions over the last 12 months, she said, along with information pertaining to 10,000 of what she called "prolific and priority offenders." She spoke anonymously in line with departmental policy.
The damaging data loss is the latest in a humiliating series of blunders to humble the British government, which is completing plans for an ambitious national identification card program and expanding its DNA database _ already the largest in the world per capita.
The news is particularly embarrassing because PA Consulting Group Ltd., the contractor identified as being responsible for the loss, had previously been chosen by the Home Office to consult on the ID card program.
Millions of names and personal details from across the country have been reported lost in the past year and in June, the government published a high-level report on its work to improve its data handling practices.
The report said the government was limiting the use of removable media such as memory sticks and ensuring that sensitive data placed on such media would be encrypted.
The Home Office spokeswoman refused to say whether putting prisoners' personal information on an unencrypted memory stick broke the rules, saying only that authorities were investigating whether PA Consulting had followed its obligations.
She added that further transfers of such data to the management consultancy had been halted.
The spokeswoman said the Home Office first heard of the loss when PA Consulting informed officials on Monday. The group confirmed the loss on Tuesday, she said, adding that the department had informed the relevant authorities as soon as possible.
However, London's Metropolitan Police said they were not notified of the loss until Thursday morning _ two days after the Home Office knew for certain the memory stick was missing.
A spokeman for the force said officers from Scotland Yard's Specialist and Economic Crimes Unit were meeting with PA Consulting to review what happened. He attributed the loss to a member of PA Consulting's staff and said there was no formal investigation because police were not treating it as a crime.
He spoke anonymously in line with force policy.
The Home Office spokeswoman refused to comment on the delay in informing the police.
"I think the salient point is that we have notified (them)," she said.
PA Consulting was using the prisoner's information as part of research it was doing for the Home Office on how offenders moved through the criminal justice system, according to the spokeswoman. She refused to elaborate.
PA Consulting spokesman David Stevens refused to say how the loss happened or discuss the research his company was undertaking for the government.
"Given that an investigation is proceeding, we've got no comment to make," he said.
Britain's government has been pounded by one data loss after another over the past year.
Two sets of secret government files were left on commuter trains in June, leading to the suspension of a senior intelligence official. Departments have also lost track of laptop computers, discs and letters carrying information on hundreds of thousands of prospective military recruits, driving-test candidates, criminals, and hospital patients.
Last month, the British military said that 658 of its laptops have been stolen over the past four years, nearly double the figure previously claimed _ and that 26 memory sticks containing classified information had been either been stolen or misplaced since January.
All these losses, however, were dwarfed by the admission in November that tax officials had lost discs containing detailed information, including financial records, on 25 million people _ nearly half the country's population.
Opposition lawmaker Dominic Grieve said the latest loss represented a "massive failure of duty."
"What is more scandalous is that it is not the first time that the government has been shown to be completely incapable of protecting the integrity of highly sensitive data, rendering them unfit to be charged with protecting our safety," he said.
David Smith, an official with the British Information Commissioner's Office, the body charged with overseeing data protection, said personal information could be a "toxic liability" if not handled properly.
"Searching questions must be answered about what safeguards were in place to protect this information," he said.


Updated : 2020-12-01 07:48 GMT+08:00