Cheshire East Council has been hit with a £80,000 fine from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), after an employee sent an email containing sensitive information using her personal email account rather than via the council’s secure system.

The employee was asked to contact the local voluntary sector co-ordinator in May, to alert local voluntary workers to a police force’s concerns about an individual who was working in the area. The email contained the name and an alleged alias for the individual, as well as information about the concerns the police had about him.

The employee said that she used her personal Hotmail account because the co-ordinator in question “did not have an appropriate email account”, and using the secure email system would have prevented the information from being forwarded on to other intended recipients.

The employee had not received any data protection training, so she did not realise she was breaching the council’s policy that secure means must be used when sending data to external recipients.

The email was then forwarded by the co-ordinator to 100 intended recipients. Because the email did not have any clear markings or advice on how it was to be treated, the recipients assumed that they too should forward the email to other voluntary workers, and the email was sent to a further 180 unintended recipients.

The council reported the matter to the ICO as soon as it became aware of the breach, and attempted to recall the email to prevent further disclosure. More than 57 percent of the recipients said that they had deleted the information.

However, the ICO described this as a “serious breach of the Data Protection Act”, and issued a fine of £80,000. The penalty will be reduced to £64,000 due to early payment.

“While we appreciate that it is vitally important for genuine concerns about individuals working in the voluntary sector to be circulated to relevant parties, a robust system must be put in place to ensure that information is appropriately managed and carefully disclosed,” said the ICO's head of enforcement Stephen Eckersley.

“Cheshire East Council also failed to provide this particular employee with adequate data protection training. The highly sensitive nature of the information and the need to restrict its circulation should have been made clear to all recipients.”

The council has issued an apology to the person affected, and said that it has taken all the necessary steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

“Data protection is an issue that the Council takes very seriously. This incident has prompted us to scrutinise our policies and procedures very carefully to make sure that this never happens again,” said Councillor David Brown.

“Staff will be receiving extra training and support in this area and all staff are being urged to remain extremely vigilant with the way sensitive information is handled and distributed.”

The ICO currently has the power to issue fines of up to £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act. Croydon Council and Norfolk County Council have both also received fines this week, totalling £180,000, for separate cases of lost personal details.

Meanwhile, the European Commission plans to issue a single set of rules on data protection that will apply across the whole of the EU. Under the new rules, companies suffering data breaches will have 24 hours to tell the relevant authorities or risk legal action and large fines.