Lessons to learn from a year of data breaches

Merchant Securities Group was fined 77,000 even though it didn't even have a security breach, but simply because its methods risked enabling one.

At the time, Margaret Cole, the director of enforcement at the FSA, said: "It is unacceptable that despite increased awareness of data security issues, a firm should be so careless about its systems for protecting customers' personal details. People have a right to expect their details to be kept secure and firms should be committed to treating their customers fairly in all aspects of their business." Right on, Margaret. Right on.

Lesson 11: The ICO needs more powerOf the 277 data breaches the ICO has investigated over the past year, it's taking action against 30 organisations. That's not a lot.

The actions it can take generally consist of sending an angry letter demanding changes to processes, to ensure the guilty body learns to comply with the Data Protection Act. For the most part, this means deleting unnecessary data and encrypting portable media devices which is what the watchdog made Virgin Media do in the wake of a lost disc.

Under the threat of prosecution, most organisations seem to just buy some encryption software and get on with business. Not really much of a deterrent, is it?

Members of the government and the information commissioner himself have all called for stronger powers. Thomas said last year that his limited powers were a "very bizarre situation, unlike virtually all the other data protection authorities around the world and most other regulatory bodies, such as the Financial Services Authority."

Indeed, until the watchdog gains the power to fine like the FSA or data breaches become criminalised, it's going to continue to be little more than a source of good advice often ignored and some nasty letters now and then.