Small fines for a big problem

With identity theft the UK's fastest growing crime, the ICO needs to take a firmer stand against dat

The Information Commissioner has handed out its first fines to organisations for data breaches, fining Hertfordshire County Council £100,000 and Sheffield-based employment services company A4e £60,000.

The Information Commissioners Office came under fire recently for seemingly failing to quickly establish that Google had breached privacy rules in the Street View car wireless 'snooping' fiasco, and when it did, doing little about it.

When the ICO finally decided that Google had conducted a "significant breach" of the Data Protection Act, it failed to levy a fine, saying that the breach of privacy had happened before its new powers to impose hefty fines came in, in April. And besides, Google had promised not to do it again.

But this week the ICO finally showed at least a little muscle, fining Hertfordshire County Council £100,000 for sending two faxes containing the confidential details of a child abuse case: one went to a member of the public, another to a legal firm not involved in the case.

The ICO also fined employment services company A4e £60,000 for a laptop which was stolen, containing the unencrypted details of over 20,000 people.

But anyone hoping that the ICO was going to come down hard on such breaches will be dismayed. Since the ICO now has the power to levy fines of up to £500,000, £60,000 seems relatively small beer for the loss of a sensitive laptop.

When the Nationwide admitted to the loss of an unencrypted laptop in November 2006, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) punished it with a fine of £980,000. That despite the Nationwide insisting that the data could not have been used for identity fraud because there were no PIN numbers, passwords or account balances on it.

But the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said the fines he's imposed on Hertfordshire County Council and A4e will send a "strong message" to any firm handling personal or sensitive data in the UK.

Either way, none of this will stop privacy campaigners arguing that it should be a legal requirement for organisations to disclose data breaches to the Information Commissioner. It's currently voluntary except for Whitehall departments and some NHS organisations, though the ICO has warned organisations they face stricter penalties if it finds out about breaches that are not disclosed.

The ICO said it had been alerted to 1,000 data breaches by May this year, but how many more go unreported? Figures for 2009 showed that identity theft was the UK's fastest growing crime. Go figure.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era