LONDON – Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized Wednesday for a potentially disastrous government blunder in which two computer disks containing personal and financial data on 25 million Britons disappeared after a junior government minister said he handed them to a courier service.
“I profoundly regret and apologize for the inconvenience and worries that have been caused to millions of families,” Brown told the House of Commons, where the revelation created new embarrassment for a prime minister already feeling pressure from recent political missteps.
A government employee has told investigators that he downloaded the personal information, including bank account numbers, addresses and birth dates, put them on two disks and handed them Oct. 18 to the courier service TNT for delivery to another government office.
Though the data were password-protected, stronger security measures normally taken for such sensitive information were not applied – the information was not encrypted, and the package wasn’t sent by TNT’s registered service. The disks have not been seen since.
TNT spokesman David Walker said his company was cooperating with police concerning the package, but “we can’t say for sure that it was ever in our possession.”
The fear is that the data could be used to steal people’s identities and commit fraud on a grand scale. Brown said there was no evidence that the information had fallen into criminal hands.
Simon Davies, a data security expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said without secure encryption, “there is very simple technology to break through password protection. It means very little.
“At every level, security has been breached,” he said. “We all want to know who authorized the system that would allow the dumping of all of this data on two disks.”
The disks contain information on 7.2 million families – all those with a child and therefore eligible for child benefits – and 25 million individuals. That means it affects more than 40 percent of the British population of 60 million.