Home News University of Greenwich fined £120,000 by ICO in wake of “serious” security breach

University of Greenwich fined £120,000 by ICO in wake of “serious” security breach

by Brian Sims

The University of Greenwich has been fined £120,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) following a “serious” security breach involving the personal data of nearly 20,000 people (among them students and staff). It’s the first university to have been fined by the ICO under the Data Protection Act 1998.

The investigation centred on a microsite developed by an academic and a student in the then devolved university’s Computing and Mathematics School to facilitate a training conference in 2004. After the event, the site wasn’t subsequently closed down or secured and was compromised in 2013. Three years later, multiple attackers exploited the vulnerability of the site allowing them to access other areas of the web server.

The personal data included the contact details of 19,500 individuals, among them students, staff and alumni with the detail involved encompassing names, addresses and telephone numbers. Around 3,500 of the records included sensitive data such as information on extenuating circumstances, details of learning difficulties and staff sickness records and was subsequently posted online.

Steve Eckersley, the ICO’s head of enforcement, commented: “While the microsite was developed in one of the university’s departments without its knowledge, as a data controller it’s responsible for the security of data throughout the institution. Students and members of staff had a right to expect that their personal information would be held securely. This serious breach would have caused significant distress. The nature of the data and the number of people affected has informed our decision to impose this level of fine.”

The Commissioner found that the university didn’t have in place the appropriate technical and organisational measures for ensuring, so far as is reasonably possible, that such a security breach would not occur (ie for ensuring that its systems couldn’t be accessed by attackers).

Crown Prosecution Service fined £325,000

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been fined £325,000 by the ICO after losing unencrypted DVDs containing recordings of police interviews. The DVDs contained recordings of interviews with 15 victims of child sex abuse to be used at a trial. This is the second penalty imposed on the CPS following the loss of sensitive video recordings.

The DVDs contained the most intimate sensitive details of the victims, as well as the sensitive personal data of the perpetrator, as well as some identifying information about other parties.

The DVDs were sent by tracked delivery between two CPS offices, with the recipient office being in a shared building. The delivery was made outside of office hours, and the DVDs – which were not housed in tamper-proof packaging – were left in the reception.

Although the building’s entry doors were locked, anyone with access to the building could enter this reception area.

The DVDs were sent in November 2016, but it wasn’t discovered that they were lost until December that year. The CPS notified the victims in March last year, and then reported the loss to the ICO the following month.

It’s not known what has happened to the DVDs.

CPS ruled to be negligent

The ICO ruled that the CPS was negligent when it failed to ensure the videos were kept safe, and did not take into account the substantial distress that would be caused if the videos were lost.

It also found that, despite being fined £200,000 following a separate breach in November 2015 – in which victim and witness video evidence was also lost – the CPS hadn’t ensured that appropriate care was being taken to avoid similar breaches re-occurring.

“The victims of serious crimes entrusted the CPS to look after their highly sensitive personal data,” stated Steve Eckersley. “A loss in trust could influence victims’ willingness to report serious crimes. The CPS failed to take basic steps to protect the data of victims of serious sexual offences. Given the nature of the personal data, it should have been obvious that this information must be properly safeguarded as its loss could cause substantial distress. The CPS must take urgent action to demonstrate that it can be trusted with the most sensitive information.”

The CPS has self-identified systemic failings and is taking action to remedy them.

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