BCS slams government over data breaches

The British Computer Society has publicly criticised the government over its handling of high-profile data breaches, particularly from within the public sector.

A recent survey carried out by the BCS has concluded that the recent spate of security breaches, including such gaffs as the loss of 25 million personal records by HMRC, have "totally eroded" the public's trust in the government's ability to keep data safe.

The survey found that, of the 1,025 people asked, nearly two thirds of British adults have a decreased level of trust in institutions managing their personal details following the recent data breaches.

Ninety per cent of respondents were aware of the Data Protection Act, while 66 per cent said that their trust in government departments had decreased since data breaches had come to light.

Asked whether the findings were surprising, chair of the BCS security forum strategic panel, Louise Bennett, said that were not unusual and that the challenge now was to regain trust.

"I think given the timing of the survey, we conducted them in January when government security breaches were prominent, the figures don't surprise me at all," she said.

"I think that we're going into a difficult era where we're going to have to be disciplined. What we're trying to do is engender public debate around these issues, such as the proper governance and stewardship of data," said Bennett.

Asked what the BCS thought of information commissioner Richard Thomas' announcement that senior government officials would be held responsible for future data breaches, Bennett was in favour of the move.

"I think that's part of the way forward. It makes sense that officers collecting and using data are held responsible when things go wrong," said Bennett. "The important thing about making them responsible is that it will ensure that one of the fundamental aspects of the Data Protection Act is kept in tact and that is that no one should collect and hold more data than they need."

The BCS's findings back up The Eurobarometer survey, which found that only half of Europeans trust that their personal data is being kept safe.

On 29 April the BCS staged an eGovernment seminar with the aim to improving data guardianship in the public sector and winning back public trust. The BCS suggested that government departments could go some way into reversing the public's opinion through greater governance and accountability, while also sharing data with secondary parties, including informed consent.

Commenting on the report, BCS vice president Elizabeth Sparrow said she believed that the government should work with the BCS to regain the public's trust.

"It was felt by many participants that government departments need to be given practical advice and training on implementing good data practices and that BCS could play a key role in this."