An inquiry was called for after a memory stick with information of millions of people was found in a pub car park in Staffordshire. The information contained confidential passwords to the Government Gateway system, the online system that offers services including self-assessment tax returns, council tax records, pension entitlements, and child benefit claimants.
The BBC reported that this was one of the most high-profile cases in the spree of missing data cases including the personal details of 100,000 of the armed forces in October, and the entire child benefits records affecting 25 million personal details in November of 2007.
Daniel Boffey in the Daily Mail reported that security of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – the department responsible for the Gateway website – had not been breached in this case and that the personal information of Gateway users was not at threat as the data was encrypted. Boffey also noted that a computer expert told the Mail on Sunday that if the memory stick had fallen into the wrong hands it could have enabled them access to 12 million peoples personal details and passcodes.
The loss of the stick has been attributed to Daniel Harrington, an IT analyst at private computer management company Atos Origin, the company in charge of supplying IT systems at the 2012 Olympics. Harringotn, 29, according to the Telegraph earlier this month, had broken the firm’s rules by downloading the information onto a USB stick and leaving the company premises.
Jimmy Burns of the Financial Times has stated that the Government will “consider” ending a contract with the private company. A spokesperson for the DWP said, "This was a serious breach of rules and we are currently considering what action to take."
This is not the only recent incident to embarress the DWP. Press Association reported that James Purnell, Secretary of State for work and Pensions, was forced to apologise for leaving confidential correspondence on a train including letters relating to the case of a constituent of Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman. Passengers clamied he left his ministerial ‘red box’ unattended whilst taking phone calls during a journey from Macclesfield to London Euston in October.
The Prime Minister Gordon Brown, during a visit to the Gulf told ITN News that the incidents demonstrated “unacceptable behaviour” and that measures should be taken to “prevent these kind of things happening in future”. On a bleaker note the PM also commented that “we can't promise that every single item of information will always be safe, because mistakes are made by human beings."