National News

The Information Commissioner’s Office reprimands NHS Highland for “serious breach of trust” after data breach involving those likely to be accessing HIV services

Graham Robson March 30, 2023

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a reprimand to NHS Highland for a “serious breach of trust” after a data breach involving those likely to be accessing HIV services.

The ICO has called for serious improvements to data protection safeguards amongst HIV service providers, stating that there is “simply no excuse”, and that “the stakes are just too high” given the impact on people’s lives.

A formal reprimand has been issued to NHS Highland, which emailed 37 people likely to be accessing HIV services, inadvertently using CC (carbon copy) instead of BCC (blind carbon copy). The error meant recipients of the email could see the personal email addresses of other people receiving the email, with one person confirming they recognised four other individuals, one of whom was a previous sexual partner.

The ICO has applied its public sector approach to this case – instead of issuing a £35,000 fine, the regulator has issued a reprimand to NHS Highland in response to this breach. The ICO’s recommendations have been included in NHS Highland’s Information Governance Action Plan, and an update will provided to the ICO in June 2023.

According to ICO data, failure to use BCC correctly is consistently within the top 10 non-cyber breaches, with nearly a thousand reported since 2019.

Stephen Bonner, ICO Deputy Commissioner – Regulatory Supervision, said: “What we saw here with NHS Highland was a serious breach of trust, and those accessing vital services failed.

“The stakes are just too high. Research shows that people living with HIV have experienced stigma or discrimination due to their status, which means organisations dealing with this type of information should take the utmost care with their personal data.

“HIV service providers must set the highest standard for themselves and their service users.

“Every HIV service provider in the country should look at this case and see it as a crucial learning experience. We are calling on organisations to raise their data protection standards and put the appropriate measures in place to keep people safe.

Under data protection law, organisations must have appropriate technical and organisational systems in place to ensure personal data is kept safe and not inappropriately disclosed to others.