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Information watchdog hits Cabinet Office with £500k monetary penalty over New Years Honours list data breach

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued the Cabinet Office with a £500,000 monetary penalty for disclosing the postal addresses of the 2020 New Year Honours recipients online.

The ICO found that the Cabinet Office failed to put appropriate technical and organisational measures in place to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of people's information, breaching data protection law.

On 27 December 2019, the Cabinet Office published a file on Gov.uk containing the names and unredacted addresses of more than 1,000 people announced in the New Years Honour list.

The list marks the achievements and service of people from a range of professions across the UK, including individuals with a high public profile.

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In its investigation, the ICO found that issues arose after the Honours and Appointments Secretariat (HAS) in the Cabinet Office introduced a new IT system in 2019 to process the public nominations for the honours list.

The new system was set up incorrectly by the Cabinet Office, according to the ICO, which meant that the system generated a CSV file that included postal address data.

Due to tight timescales to get the New Year Honours list published, the HAS operations team decided to amend the file instead of modifying the IT system. However, each time a new file version was generated, the postal address data was automatically included in the file.

After becoming aware of the data breach, the Cabinet Office removed the weblink to the file. However, the file was still cached and accessible online to people who had the exact webpage address.

The personal data was available online for a period of two hours and 21 minutes and it was accessed 3,872 times.

Due to the data being published in the public domain, the ICO received three complaints from affected individuals who raised personal safety concerns resulting from the breach. The Cabinet Office was also contacted by 27 individuals with similar concerns.

During the investigation, the Cabinet Office confirmed that there was no specific or written process in place in HAS at the time to sign off documents and content containing personal data prior to being sent for publication.

The ICO acknowledged that the Cabinet Office acted promptly when made aware of the data breach and it undertook a full incident review. The Cabinet Office has since instigated a number of operational and technical measures to improve the security of its systems, and an independent review focusing on data handling was completed in 2020.

Steve Eckersley, ICO Director of Investigations, said: "When data breaches happen, they have real life consequences. In this case, more than 1,000 people were affected. At a time when they should have been celebrating and enjoying the announcement of their honour, they were faced with the distress of their personal details being exposed.

"The Cabinet Office's complacency and failure to mitigate the risk of a data breach meant that hundreds of people were potentially exposed to the risk of identity fraud and threats to their personal safety.

"The fine issued today sends a message to other organisations that looking after people's information safely, as well as regularly checking that appropriate measures are in place, must be at the top of their agenda."

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Office would like to reiterate our apology for this incident. We took action to mitigate any potential harm by immediately informing the Information Commissioner and everyone affected by the breach.

"We take the findings of the Information Commissioner very seriously, and have completed an internal review as well as implemented a number of measures to ensure this does not happen again. This includes a review of the overall security of the system, information management training and improving internal processes for how data is handled by the honours team.”

Adam Carey

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