The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has served fines to North Somerset Council and Worcestershire County Council for ‘serious email errors'.
The ICO said that in both incidents staff sent highly sensitive personal information to the wrong recipients. The first occurred at North Somerset Council in November 2010, when a council employee sent five emails, two of which contained highly sensitive and confidential information about a child's serious case review, to the wrong NHS employee.
The council employee was told about the error by the unintended recipient shortly after, but despite this, information was emailed to the same NHS employee on a further three occasions.
The issue was then raised at senior level when two of the council's assistant directors highlighted the issue with the employee, but a fifth and final incident took place later that same day.
North Somerset Council has been served with a monetary penalty of £60,000 for a serious breach of the Data Protection Act. The ICO confirmed that the NHS organisation said it destroyed the emails after its own internal investigation was complete, and that while North Somerset Council had some policies and procedures in place, it had failed to ensure that relevant staff received appropriate data protection training.
The other incident occurred in March 2011, when a member of staff at Worcestershire County Council emailed highly sensitive personal information about a large number of vulnerable people to 23 unintended recipients.
The error occurred when the employee clicked on an additional contact list before sending the email, which had only been intended for internal use. Worcestershire County Council has explained to the ICO that as soon as the breach occurred the council employee immediately realised their error and attempted to contact all of the unintended recipients to ensure that the information was deleted.
Despite this, the ICO has served a penalty of £80,000 to the council.
Information commissioner Christopher Graham said: “Personal information in cases involving vulnerable people is about the most sensitive personal information imaginable. It is of great concern that this sort of information was simply sent to the wrong recipients by staff at two separate councils.
“It was fortunate that in both cases at least the email recipients worked in a similar sector and so were used to handling sensitive information. This mitigating factor has been taken into account in assessing the amount of the penalties.
“There is too much of this sort of thing going on across local government. People who handle highly sensitive personal information need to understand the real weight of responsibility that comes with keeping it secure. Of course this includes having the correct training and policies in place, but it's also about common sense.
“Considering whether email is the appropriate medium, checking and double checking that the right recipients will receive the information, and measures like encryption and data minimisation, should be routine. I hope these penalties send a clear message to those working in the social care sector. The Information Commissioner takes this sloppiness seriously – and so should you.”
Following the incidents, both North Somerset and Worcestershire councils have undertaken substantial remedial action to reduce the likelihood of further breaches.