The government does not keep a central register of missing desktop or laptop computers – although ministers have admitted that hundreds have been stolen in recent years.
Concern over missing computer equipment has focused on discs in the wake of HM Revenue and Customs loss of 25 million people’s details, held on two unencrypted CDs that were lost in transit to the National Audit Office.
But ministers have been forced to admit – in a series of parliamentary statements - that laptops and sometimes even desktop PCs have been going missing from central government departments for years.
The figures report the number of stolen machines on a department-by-department basis, with a series of statements made by ministers in January this year detailing thefts in the most recent year for which figures were then available.
They show a total of 292 laptops and desktop PCs stolen from departmental offices (see box).
New figures, revealed by justice minister David Hanson, show that a desktop computer and 26 laptops, with a total replacement value of £50,000, were stolen in 2007. Hanson said there had been “no reported security breaches”.
The government’s stolen computers
- Department for Communities and Local Government: 8 (2006/07)
- Department of Work and Pensions: 12 (2006)
- Department of Food and Rural Affairs: 18 (2005/06)
- former Department for Education and Skills: 7 (2006)
- Department of Health: 18 (2006)
- former Department of Constitutional Affairs: 23 (2006)
- Department for International Development: 2 (2006/07)
- Department of Transport: 30 (2006/07)
- Cabinet Office: 1 (2005, latest data available)
- Foreign Office: 1 (2005/06)
- former Department of Trade and Industry: 8 (2006)
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport: 0 (2006)
- Welsh Office: 0 (2006)
- Home Office: 95 (figure for 2005, 2006 data not available)
- Treasury: 0 (to 29/11/2006)
- Ministry of Defence: 68 (2006)
- Northern Ireland Office: 1 (2006/07)
- Scottish Office: 0 (2006)
A government spokesperson has now confirmed that thefts and other losses are not monitored centrally. “Laptops and other computers are departmental assets for which departments are accountable,” he said.
“There is not a central register of how many laptops are lost or stolen each year.”
The Manual of Protective Security, published by the Cabinet Office, sets out rules for security –including encryption standards for laptops – which departments must follow, he added.
HMRC has also lost a substantial number of computers. Last month, the agency admitted that taxpayer data was held on a laptop stolen from an employee’s car.
But HMRC has in fact lost dozens of other laptops. In answer to parliamentary questions, Treasury minister Jane Kennedy was forced to admit that 41 laptops had been stolen between October 2006 and September 2007, 16 of them during a break in at one of HMRC's offices.
Kennedy refused to say what information was held on the missing machines. “I cannot comment on staff disciplinary matters or disclose information relating to the data held on stolen laptops,” she said.
Earlier parliamentary records reveal that a steady stream of stolen equipment has been removed from a number government departments over the past few years. In April, the Home Office admitted that 17 laptops, a PDA and a Blackberry had been reported stolen in 2006, with another three computers stolen in the first four months of 2007.
But the figures have fallen since 2005, when a total of 95 machines were taken by thieves.
At the Ministry of Defence, 66 laptops and two desktop PCs were stolen in 2006, with another 458 machines stolen over the years between 1998 and 2005. A total of 173 laptop machines and two desktop machines were pinched from the MoD in 2004 alone.