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Health Board Warned Over Data Breach Involving Likely HIV Service Users

NHS Highland has been reprimanded after a data breach that showed the personal email addresses of people likely accessing HIV services to others. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) issued the reprimand for the "serious breach of trust".

NHS Highland sent an email to 37 people likely to be accessing HIV services but erroneously used CC ('carbon copy') instead of BCC ('blind carbon copy'), meaning all recipients of the email could see the personal email addresses of others receiving it. One person confirmed they recognised four other individuals, one of whom was a previous sexual partner.

The ICO has called for improvements to be made to data protection safeguards amongst HIV service providers, saying there is "simply no excuse" and that "the stakes are just too high" given the impact on people's lives.

Instead of issuing a £35,000 fine to NHS Highland, the ICO has applied a public sector approach in response to the breach in issuing the reprimand.

'The Stakes are Just Too High'

Stephen Bonner, ICO deputy commissioner for 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."

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.

According to the ICO data, failure to use BCC correctly is consistently within the top 10 non-cyber breaches, with nearly 1000 reported since 2019. Under current date protection laws, organisations have to have appropriate technical and organisational systems in place to ensure personal data is kept safe and not inappropriately disclosed to others.

This article contains information from PA Media