Data breaches in UK healthcare sector double since 2013, ICO numbers show

FoI request shows 2,018 in 15 months

Data breaches severe enough to be reported to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) have surged since 2013, with sectors such as healthcare reporting a doubling of incidents, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by encryption firm Egress Software Technologies has discovered.

In the second calendar quarter of 2013, breaches involving healthcare were running at 91, which jumped dramatically to 137, 160 and 163 in the following quarters before reaching 183 between April and June of this year, a 101 percent increase or 734 in total.

Education also rose from 25 in the second calendar quarter of 2013 to 39 a year later (163 in total), while local government remained roughly static between 52 and 62 for each quarter (296 in total).

For perspective, across all sectors the number of reported breaches rose steadily from 335 in April-June 2013 to 459 for the same period of this year, or 2,018 in 15 months.

Egress calculates that the ICO has levied £6.7 million ($10.5 million) in fines since 2010 with public sector organisations responsible for £4.5 million of this.

The firm's analysis suggests that 93 percent of the breaches happened because of human error, poor processes or deficient data handling rather than a technical failing.

"Of course, we will never be able to completely rule out people making mistakes but clearly safeguards are urgently needed," said Egress Software's CEO, Tony Pepper.

"Confusion can often put confidential data at risk, with users unsure of when and how to encrypt. Similarly, a continued reliance on fax and post demonstrates a disturbing lack of care and control taken to sensitive information."

Encryption is usually at this rolled out as a quick conceptual fix but the firm's argument is that basic technical controls are still essential.

"Training alone is not the answer. Organisations have put huge emphasis on process driven training, but the fact that 93 percent of all incidents between January and March 2014 were caused by human error or failure to carry out effective process," said Pepper.

The other issue at hand is the scale of public sector data breaches. Although private-sector organisations also showed small increases, healthcare's rise is still extraordinary in such a short period of time.

A few weeks ago, a similar FoI study of UK data breaches in the NHS by Big Brother Watch found that the organisation has suffered a staggering 3,000 breaches since 2011.

Interestingly, these numbers seem a bit higher than the level implied by the ICO figures although they were gathered by sending FoI requests straight to UK health trusts (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) rather than from those the ICO got to hear about.

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