The personal details of 5,000 prison staff have been lost, when a hard drive containing the data went missing after being sent to IT contractor EDS.
The loss will bolster the support for Information Commissioner Richard Thomas' calls that the government needs to strengthen data sharing rules, and that his office needs more effective powers to enforce data protection. He said last month that data protection needs to be taken seriously "at all levels".
The hard drive was lost in July 2007, but the prison service was not informed until 12 months later when EDS sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice explaining the situation. Data lost included prison staff names, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and employee numbers.
It had been sent from MoJ offices at Mitcheldean in Gloucestershire for testing in Washington, Tyne and Wear, it has been reported. It was then sent to an EDS office in Telford in Shropshire. When an employee wanted to use the disc this July, it emerged that the drive was missing.
The news was only exposed at the weekend, when the News of the World newspaper, which obtained the EDS letter, sent a copy to justice secretary Jack Straw. He did not know about the situation and has ordered an inquiry.
In a statement made at the weekend, Straw said: " I am extremely concerned about this missing data. I was informed of its loss yesterday lunchtime (Saturday) and have ordered an urgent inquiry into the circumstances and the implications of the data loss and the level of risk involved.
“I have also asked for a report as to why I was not informed as soon as my department became aware of this issue. My officials are also in touch with EDS as part of these processes. We take these matters extremely seriously."
EDS said in a statement that it also takes the matter “very seriously”, adding that it was “working the Ministry of Justice to confirm the level of risk, and provide a detailed analysis of situation and remedies that should be undertaken”.
The data loss revelations have caused fear that the prison staff affected may be forced to move for fear of the data being misused if it falls into the wrong hands.
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