Local authorities "struggling" to prevent loss of sensitive data

A "small but significant" number of local authorities are struggling to prevent the loss of data and security breaches, according to new research.

Freedom of Information requests to the Information Commissioner's Office by public sector insurer Zurich Municipal shows the watchdog had handled 625 cases in 2015 where a local authority faced a complaint of breaching the Data Protection Act.

The report comes after FoI requests by Huntsman Security showed that data breaches in local government had increased by 14 per cent in the year to March. Around 70 per cent of cases involved the disclosure of data in error.

In more than a third of cases in Zurich Municipal's study, 34 per cent, the ICO issued specific instructions to make changes, including nine cases where a local authority was required to produce an improvement action plan and one where a compliance audit was requested to establish areas to address.

In 108 cases, councils were asked to address the complainant's specific concerns and in 28 the ICO gave general advice on how to improve services in order to prevent similar complaints.

Paul Tombs, head of public services at Zurich Municipal, said: "Local authorities are responsible for managing and processing a large volume of data, including sensitive information, and are continuing to do so against a challenging backdrop of squeezed budgets and limited resources.

"As local authorities rightly focus on transforming service provision with a general move to online and self-service, they must ensure robust review of their data protection plans and ensure these are still fit for purpose. This research shows that a small yet significant number of councils are struggling to manage their data protection processes.

"Most councils have been able to fight off any data threat thanks to robust data protection strategies that take into account potential risks and set out steps that need to be taken. Insurers and other risk experts are often able to advise on such strategies. The councils that are still struggling need to follow suit and see where they can apply best practice."