Cabinet Office fined £500,000 for New Year Honours data leak

Error led to more than 1,000 people having their names and corresponding addresses posted online

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has fined the Cabinet Office £500,000 for a 2020 data leak that exposed the full names and addresses of the New Year Honours recipients on its gov.uk web page.

More than 1,000 people were affected by the leak, with some complaining that they felt concerned for their personal safety. Notable inclusions in the list were Sir Elton John, Dame Olivia Newton-John, and Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

The ICO concluded the Cabinet Office had breached the Data Protection Act 2018 as a result, and was punished according to the rules set out by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

It was also found that the Cabinet Office failed to implement the appropriate technical and organisational measures in its IT systems to protect the data of those affected.

"When data breaches happen, they have real life consequences," said Steve Eckersley, ICO Director of Investigations. "In this case, more than 1,000 people were affected. At a time when they should have been celebrating and enjoying the announcement of their honour, they were faced with the distress of their personal details being exposed.

"The Cabinet Office’s complacency and failure to mitigate the risk of a data breach meant that hundreds of people were potentially exposed to the risk of identity fraud and threats to their personal safety," he added.

“The fine issued today sends a message to other organisations that looking after people’s information safely, as well as regularly checking that appropriate measures are in place, must be at the top of their agenda."

The IT system in question was implemented in 2019 but was misconfigured, according to the ICO. It generated a .CSV file for the New Year Honours list, which included full names and corresponding home addresses, before posting it online.

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The team responsible for generating and publishing the list were under tight deadlines, the ICO reported, and instead of fixing the system, it attempted to amend the file instead. However, each time a new file was generated, the .CSV file included full addresses.

Despite removing the file shortly after posted it online, a cached version remained accessible to the public. The ICO reported the file was accessed 3,872 times in the period of two hours and 21 minutes that it was online.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that there were no specific or written processes in place at the time to sign off documents and content containing personal data prior to being sent for publication.

The ICO acknowledged the swiftness of the Cabinet Office's response and undertook a full incident review, which has led to operational and technical improvements, and an independent review launched into the incident.

"The Cabinet Office would like to reiterate our apology for this incident," it said in a statement to IT Pro. "We took action to mitigate any potential harm by immediately informing the Information Commissioner and everyone affected by the breach.

"We take the findings of the Information Commissioner very seriously, and have completed an internal review as well as implemented a number of measures to ensure this does not happen again. This includes a review of the overall security of the system, information management training and improving internal processes for how data is handled by the honours team.”

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