The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has fined the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) £180,000 over a serious Data Protection Act breach that led to the loss of confidential information on thousands of prisoners.
This is not the first time that an unencrypted hard drive has been lost by the MoJ. A device containing details on 16,000 prisoners serving time at HMP High Down prison in Surrey was lost in October 2011.
In the latest investigation, the ICO found that a back-up hard drive, which was not encrypted, was lost at HMP Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire in May 2013. The device, which held a copy of the prison intelligence database, contained sensitive and confidential information about 2,935 prisoners, including links to organised crime, health information, drug misuse history, distinguishing physical features, and information about victims and visitors.
The hard drive was last used the week before it was discovered to be missing, but had not been locked up in a fireproof safe, as required. It was not password protected or encrypted.
Following the Surrey prison incident, in May 2012, an unnamed IT provider supplied new hard drives to all of the 75 prisons in England and Wales that were still using back-up hard drives in this way. Although the new devices had an encryption function, the ICO found that the prison service didn't realise that the function had to be turned on to work correctly, and therefore failed to instruct the IT provider to check that the encryption software was working when it carried out a review in September 2012.
This means that prisons in England and Wales were not handling sensitive information securely for more than a year.
Stephen Eckersley, ICO head of enforcement, said: "The fact that a government department with security oversight for prisons can supply equipment to 75 prisons throughout England and Wales without properly understanding, let alone telling them, how to use it beggars belief.
"The result was that highly sensitive information about prisoners and vulnerable members of the public, including victims, was insecurely handled for over a year. This failure to provide clear oversight was only addressed when a further serious breach occurred and the devices were finally set up correctly."
He added: "This is simply not good enough and we expect government departments to be an example of best practice when it comes to looking after people's information. We hope this penalty sends a clear message that organisations must not only have the right equipment available to keep people's information secure, but must understand how to use it."
The MoJ has worked with the National Offenders and Management Service (NOMS) to ensure that the encryption software for the remaining hard drives have been activated or upgraded. The department has also installed a new intelligence system in all the prisons to remove the need for a manual backup.
While the hard drive has still not been found, the ICO said that it believes the sensitive information has not been shared publicly at this time.
A MoJ spokesperson said: "These hard drives have now been replaced with a secure, centralised system. Incidents like this are extremely rare and there is no evidence to suggest that any personal data got into the public domain."
In October 2013, the ICO fined the MoJ £140,000 for a serious data breach that led to sensitive details of all the prisoners at one prison being emailed to three inmates' families multiple times.