Data loss prompts Whitehall laptop ban

Whitehall staff have been banned from taking laptops containing personal or unencrypted information outside of their government offices.

Head of the civil service Sir Gus O’Donnell wrote to all government departments imposing the ban in the light of the latest data loss by the government.

Defence secretary Des Browne yesterday confirmed to MPs a laptop with the personal details of around 600,000 potential recruits had been stolen.

The laptop was stolen from a Royal Navy officer’s car at some time on January 9th.

Ministers were told on January 14th that the information – including the family details, national insurance, passport and driving licence numbers and NHS numbers – had not been encrypted.

Speaking to the Commons, Mr Browne said: “It is not clear to me why recruiting officers routinely carry with them information on such a large number of people or, indeed, why the database retains this information at all.”

In an email to all Whitehall staff, Sir Gus wrote: “From now on, no unencrypted laptops or drives containing personal data should be taken outside secured office premises.

“Please ensure that this is communicated throughout your organisation and delivery bodies and implemented immediately, and that steps are taken to monitor compliance.”

Updating MPs on the thefts first reported publicly at the weekends, the defence secretary promised a full investigation “into how these weaknesses came about,” to be headed up by Sir Edmund Barton, chairman of the Information Advisory Council.

Mr Browne said: “Our internal investigation has identified weaknesses in the application of MoD security procedures to this database.

“It is clear that the database files were not encrypted, in breach of MoD procedures.”

The officer responsible for the Birmingham theft could now face disciplinary action.

Mr Browne confirmed preliminary investigations have revealed the theft of two further laptops with similar information since 2005.

In total 69 laptops and seven personal computers have been lost by the Ministry of Defence over the past year.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the situation was a “dreadful mess”.