Potential big DPA fine for NHS Trust

The Argus, a Brighton newspaper, is reporting that Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust has been served with a “notice of intent to fine” by the Information Commissioner (IC), for a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The sum proposed is £375,000.

Assuming the story is true, the notice of intent to fine would be, strictly, a notice of intent, under s55B of the DPA, to impose a Monetary Penalty Notice (MPN). MPNs were introduced into the DPA by the provisions of Criminal Justice Act 2003. They provide a means whereby the IC can impose financial sanctions on Data Controllers for serious contraventions of the data protection principles. The maximum amount for an MPN is £500,000, and the sums levied are not retained by the IC, but go to the consolidated fund.

The paper says

The incident relates to the theft of 232 drives out of 1,000 being decommissioned.

The Sussex Health Informatics Service was responsible for the disposal of the drives on the trust’s behalf and had appointed an individual to carry out the job.

In December 2010 it emerged four hard drives had been bought by a data recovery organisation on eBay.

The buyer contacted the trust and the drives were collected with the information destroyed.

An investigation revealed that 232 hard drives in total had been stolen and sold on.

The trust worked with the ICO, NHS Counter Fraud and Sussex Police and all the drives have been recovered.

The trust says there was a very low risk of any of the data being passed into the public domain.

Several points arise from this.

At a proposed £375,000 this MPN, if imposed, would be by far the highest so far served on a data controller. The previous highest – £130,000 – was imposed in December last year on Powys County Council.

The fact that news of the proposed MPN has come out before it has been actually served (that is, at the “notice of intent” stage) is perhaps connected with the fact that the Argus reports that “The trust says it will be contesting the fine”. By s55B(5) of the DPA a data controller in receipt of an MPN may appeal to the Information Tribunal against both the issue of the MPN, and the amount. If the Trust are contesting the fine now, they may ultimately decide to appeal to the Tribunal. This would be interesting: most of the guidance on sanctions for serious contraventions of the DPA comes from the IC himself, and from previous MPNs and undertakings. Many data controllers would find it helpful also to have some judicial analysis to draw on in these circumstances.

Until now, nearly all MPNs have been imposed on local authorities. I’ve previously questioned why this was, and posited that it would be a high risk move for the IC to serve an MPN on the NHS:

one wonders what sort of critical media coverage might ensue, as well as what the effect on the reputation of the DPA regime would be, if the IC were to impose hefty monetary penalties on the NHS. And as the sums levied go not towards improving general data security, but rather straight into the government consolidated fund, one begins to see why it might not be a particularly attractive option: a regulator who takes direly-needed money from the NHS, and places it in the government’s wallet, could well struggle to maintain popularity with the media and the public.

If this MPN is served, as intended, then the IC might be faced with headlines equating (for example) £375,000 to the amount it costs to employ a nurse, or a doctor or provide essentail but costly medical treatment. I hope (and I am sure) he has a strategy for such circumstances.

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1 Comment

Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, Information Commissioner

One response to “Potential big DPA fine for NHS Trust

  1. C.B.Nemo

    The following points need to be considered. 232 hard drives is not a small amount. Moreover, it would appear, but not certain, that this was happenning over a period of time rather than a one off haul. Some were sold on ebay, which suggests the scale of the breach. At the same time what systms were in place for inventory control. If the breach was not reported until months after, or the ICO found out about it, then that would (could be an aggravating) factor. We do not know the timescales or when the theft was reported.

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