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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
30 March 2023
ICO calls for highest standards in HIV services after NHS Highland data breach

NHS Highlands have been reprimanded by the ICO | Alamy

ICO calls for highest standards in HIV services after NHS Highland data breach

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

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

NHS Highland were found to have emailed 37 people, likely to be accessing HIV services, inadvertently using CC (carbon copy) instead of BCC (blind carbon copy) in June 2019. 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 have said that they have “applied its public sector approach to this case”, opting to issue a reprimand, rather than a £35,000 fine. The ICO’s recommendations have been included in NHS Highland’s Information Governance Action Plan, and an update will be provided to the ICO in June 2023. 

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

The ICO’s deputy commissioner Stephen Bonner 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.” 

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