The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has once again been forced to take action after a contractor working for two London housing bodies left sensitive data relating to almost 27,000 individuals on an unencrypted memory stick in a pub.
The stick contained information on 20,000 residents of Lewisham Homes, around 800 containing banking information, as well as details on 6,200 residents of Wandle Housing Association.
The USB was handed into police without any data appearing to have been stolen, but Sally-Anne Poole, acting head of enforcement at the ICO, warned that the incident should serve as a warning of the perils of unencrypted devices.
"Saving personal information onto an unencrypted memory stick is as risky as taking hard copy papers out of the office," she said.
"Luckily, the device was handed in and there is no suggestion that the data was misused. But this incident could so easily have been avoided if the information had been properly protected."
The housing groups have agreed to make sure that all devices used to store personal information are encrypted, and to put monitoring processes in place to ensure that staff and contractors follow this policy.
"We are pleased that Lewisham Homes and Wandle Housing Association will now make sure that all contractors follow their guidance on keeping personal information secure," Poole added.
Mark Fullbrook, director of Cyber-Ark, described the incident as another example of shoddy data protection policies.
"Using a USB to transport sensitive information may be convenient but it's certainly not secure. There have been enough warning signs now for organisations to start getting the hint. Sensitive information must be afforded the right protection," he said.
"Firms need to rethink their existing practices and ensure that the same high level of security used within the organisation is used to defend its information in the outside world."
Furthermore, despite the regulator offering a free audit of data protection practices, a Freedom of Information request by V3 found that firms in sectors such as retail and communications had passed on this offer.
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