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ICO Fines Health Clinic for Revealing HIV Patient Names, Addresses

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced it is fining a sexual health clinic operated by the NHS Trust, for revealing the email addresses of 700 patients with HIV.

Worse, 730 of the 781 email addresses contained people’s full names.

The Soho-based clinic, 56 Dean Street, allowed patients with HIV to receive test results and make appointments by email. It also sends a newsletter to those who have signed up. Unfortunately, in September, an administrative error resulted in addresses wrongly entered into the ‘to’ field instead of the ‘bcc’ field, so that anyone receiving the September newsletter could see the email addresses of all the other recipients.

So, the ICO has fined Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust £180,000 after the ICO found there had been a serious breach of the Data Protection Act, which was likely to have caused substantial distress.

“People’s use of a specialist service at a sexual health clinic is clearly sensitive personal data,” said Information Commissioner Christopher Graham. “The law demands this type of information is handled with particular care following clear rules, and put simply, this did not happen.”

He added, “It is clear that this breach caused a great deal of upset to the people affected. The clinic served a small area of London, and we know that people recognized other names on the list, and feared their own name would be recognized too. That our investigation found this wasn’t the first mistake of this type by the Trust only adds to what was a serious breach of the law.”

To wit: The trust had previously made a similar error in March 2010, when a member of staff in the pharmacy department sent a questionnaire to 17 patients in relation to their HIV treatment, entering emails in the ‘to’ field instead of the ‘bcc’ field.

"Malicious hacking attacks are often front-page news, such as the recent headline breaches at TalkTalk and Sony,” said Richard Anstey, CTO EMEA, Intralinks on the topic. “But this latest fine from the ICO shows that human mistakes like the 56 Dean Street email leak, which involves incredibly sensitive patient data, are really the heart of the problem.”

 In fact, a study by Intralinks and Ponemon found that 61 percent of respondents had accidentally shared files with unauthorized individuals.

“Organizations dealing with sensitive information need to consider how to contain bad practices such as the 56 Dean Street ‘bcc’ incident,” he added. “One key factor here is education: training staff on procedures and protocols. However, training alone is not enough as humans are prone to making mistakes. Instead, organizations should combine education with technology to help cope with the accidental loss of data.”

The fine will be paid into HM Treasury’s Consolidated Fund and is not kept by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Photo © Bruce Rolff

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