The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has reprimanded Southwark Council after an unencrypted desktop containing information on 7,200 individuals was found in a skip two years after it was misplaced during an office move.
The Apple iMac was left in an office vacated by the council in December 2009. It was subsequently discovered by the new tenants, who put it in a skip, along with sensitive documents also left at the scene, before it was recovered this year.
The information on the computer included names, addresses, medical history and criminal convictions of residents in the borough and council contract workers. An inquiry by the ICO found that while the council had procedures in place for disposing of sensitive information these were not followed by staff.
Sally Anne Poole, acting head of enforcement at the ICO, said the failure of staff to adhere to data protection policies was of concern to the organisation but it was unable to issue any financial penalty due to the date of the case.
"The fact that thousands of residents' personal details went missing for over two years clearly shows that Southwark Council's policies for handling personal information are below standard," she said.
"As this information was lost before the ICO received the power to issue financial penalties we are unable to consider taking more formal action in this case."
Southwark Council has signed an undertaking with the ICO agreeing to ensure all portable devices used for storing sensitive information are encrypted. It will also open up its procedures to an ICO audit next year.
The incident is the second in a few days in which the ICO said it would have considered issuing a fine if possible. A QC in Scotland admitted in August this year that an unencrypted laptop had been stolen from her, but the ICO was unable to take action as the incident occurred in 2009.
The privacy watchdog was given the ability to fine firms up to £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act on 6 April 2010 but so far just six fines have been issued.
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