UK Information Commissioner hits Independent inquiry into child sexual abuse with a 200,000 pound for major data breach

July 30, 2018 |

As if the victims hadn’t suffered enough.  The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse suffered a major data breach.  Of the all too common own goal variety.  A staff member sent an open email to 90 victims of sexual abuse, thereby allowing each person to identify the emails of others.  More than the majority of the email addresses listed the full name of the recipients.  Given the nature of the inquiry and the sensitivity of at least some of the recipients it was a dreadful and entirely avoidable error.  The Inquiry released personal information without consent.

Under the Monetary Penalty Notice the contravention was classified as serious and negligent.  As importantly the Commissioner found that the Inquiry failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the contravention.  There were both mitigating and aggravating factors.  By way of mitigation the Commissioner noted that there was an apology to those affected and the breach resulted in a reputational hit.  The aggravating factors included that there was a failure to take effective remedial action.  Balancing all of those factors resulted in a penalty of £200,000.

The media release provides:

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after sending a bulk email that identified possible victims of non-recent child sexual abuse.

The Inquiry, set up in 2014 to investigate the extent to which institutions failed to protect children from sexual abuse, did not keep confidential and sensitive personal information secure. This is a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

On 27 February 2017, an IICSA staff member sent a blind carbon copy (bcc) email to 90 Inquiry participants telling them about a public hearing. After noticing an error in the email, a correction was sent but email addresses were entered into the ‘to’ field, instead of the ‘bcc’ field by mistake.

This allowed the recipients to see each other’s email addresses, identifying them as possible victims of child sexual abuse.                                   

Fifty-two of the email addresses contained the full names of the participants or had a full name label attached.

The Inquiry was alerted to the breach by a recipient of the email who entered two further email addresses into the ‘to’ field before clicking on ‘Reply All’.

The Inquiry then sent three emails asking the recipients to delete the original email and not to circulate further. One of these emails generated 39 ‘Reply All’ emails.

ICO Director of Investigations, Steve Eckersley, said:

“This incident placed vulnerable people at risk, which is concerning. IICSA should and could have done more to ensure this did not happen.

“People’s email addresses can be searched via social networks and search engines, so the risk that they could be identified was significant.”

The ICO investigation found:

  • The Inquiry failed to use an email account that could send a separate email to each participant;
  • The Inquiry failed to provide staff with any (or any adequate) guidance or training on the importance of double checking that the participant’s email addresses were entered into the ‘bcc’ field;
  • The Inquiry hired an IT company to manage the mailing list and relied on advice from the company that it would prevent individuals from replying to the entire list;
  • In July 2017 a recipient clicked on ‘Reply All’ in response to an email from the Inquiry, via the mailing list, and revealed their email to the entire list;
  • The Inquiry breached their own privacy notice by sharing participants’ emails addresses with the IT company without their consent.

The Inquiry and the ICO received 22 complaints about the security breach, and one complainant told the ICO he was “very distressed” by the security breach. IICSA has since apologised to the affected individuals.

The case was dealt with under the provisions and maximum penalties of the Data Protection Act 1998, and not the 2018 Act which has replaced it, because of the date of the breach.

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