Thousands of social welfare details on stolen laptop

Mon, Aug 11, 2008, 01:00

Personal details of 380,000 social welfare recipients were stored on a laptop which went missing in April 2007, it emerged today.

Up to 106,000 of the records held on the laptop contained bank account details as recipients were paid benefits directly into their accounts.

Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley said that 16 laptops belonging to his office had been stolen since 1999. Following an examination three of these laptops have been identified as containing data that could, if improperly disclosed, be misused.

In addition to the laptop containing information on social welfare scheme payments, the other two laptops contained PPSN and banking details related to the payrolls of seven public bodies.

The C&AG's office said it has contacted those public bodies and they are examining how to inform their staff or clients.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin said she was "very concerned" that her Department was not made aware by the C&AG "of the nature and extent of the loss at the time the theft was reported to the Garda in 2007.

"I view the loss of information and time very seriously," she added.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs is to write to the social welfare recipients whose personal details were contained on the laptop following the disclosure.

The vast majority of affected recipients were in receipt of various social welfare schemes during a period of time in 2005.

A breakdown of the records indicate that 295,000 of them were related to state pensions, 63,000 to one parent family payments, 15,000 to widows' non-contributory pensions and 800 to orphans contributory pensions.

A small number of records of bereavement grants, carers' allowance/benefit and invalidity pensions were also included in the files.

In addition some 5,000 unemployment and employment supports were contained on the laptop. These records relate to payment files of customers at social welfare offices in Kilbarrack, Newbridge and Cobh in 2004.

The C&AG's office said it is assisting the department to identify those clients for whom personal data was recorded and, in particular, those cases where payments were made through personal bank accounts.

It added that it was conducting an audit of payments records relating to 2005 and the information provided, other than names and addresses, was provided in an encoded format. However, the C&AG's office confirmed that this information was converted into a readable record on the laptop that went missing.

The laptop was stolen from an audit room used by the C&AG based in the Department of Social and Family Affairs .

Officials in the Department said today that given that 16 months has passed since the theft of the laptop, there is no evidence that customer information has been mis-used or compromised in any way.

The Department said it has been in contact with the Bank of Ireland, and it has seen nothing to indicate any connection between fraud activity and missing DSFA records.

The Department has set up a dedicated helpline for members of the public to ring if they are one of the people affected or if they have any concerns. Advertisements will also appear in national and regional newspapers this week to outline which particular schemes are affected.

“I am extremely concerned that this theft of information could cause anxiety to our customers, particularly our pensioners. I am also very concerned that this volume of information was put on a laptop," said Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin.

The Department said it was only informed of the details of the information on the stolen laptop just over a week ago and has been working with both the C&AG and Data Protection Commissioner in relation to the breach of information. An Garda Siochána and payment agencies have been contacted.

The C&AG's office said it regretted the loss of the laptop computers and the risk that the information on them could be improperly disclosed or misused. It said steps have been taken to reduce the risk of a similar situation recurring.

The Department of Social Affairs helpline can be contacted at 1800 690 590 (9am – 6pm) or e-mail helpline@welfare.ie