Legal and financial firms should follow the ICO’s data security guidelines, too

Just two days after the news of a Torquay health trust being fined £175,000 for publishing sensitive data of over 1,000 of their own employees on their website, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released the top five areas which need improvement in order to keep personal and sensitive information safe within an SME. Although aimed at charities and public sector organisations, these tips are also relevant to the private sector, in particular the financial and legal arena where a vast amount of personal and sensitive information is handled.

The guidelines issued by the ICO include giving employees data protection training, being clear on what use is made of personal information and having an established data retention period, where it is only kept for as long as necessary. It is important to highlight the emphasis on the ‘people’ factor and the role of security awareness training in the protection of information within an organisation. Human error is still the leading cause of data protection breaches across the UK, most of which are not malicious. About a third of all data breaches (36 per cent) are due to negligent employees, according to the latest Symantec/Ponemon Institute ‘UK cost of a Data Breach’ study. It is therefore crucial to give more attention to educating people rather than simply concentrating on purchasing the latest data protection tools and technology.

Organisations have to act in two ways: on one side, they have to train their employees so that they are more aware of data protection regulations, the applicable risks to the organisation and internal policies, as well as the consequences of not following these regulations and policies; on the other side, they need to protect themselves from their own employees, making sure encryption is used on all devices, as well as limiting access to data to only those who are authorised.

If personal and sensitive information is lost, stolen or made public, the organisation responsible for the breach will potentially face a hefty fine – but the consequences of a data breach are not only financial. Especially in the case of financial and legal firms, there will also be reputational damage which may be too difficult to recover from.

It may be the case that for a large multi-national company the money and reputational loss involved does not affect their bottom line or position within the market too much, it is not the same for small and medium-size enterprises. With less money at their disposal and a limited number of loyal clients, a large fine can severely affect their capital and the subsequent reputational loss might lead to business loss and, ultimately, failure.

For this reason, it is increasingly important that SMEs in the legal and financial sector invest time and resources on preventing information security incidents, in order to avoid having to pay for their mistakes at a later date. There is a lot of trust bestowed upon these organisations by their clients, so the least they can do is to make sure that their details are kept safe and secure, ensuring that this trust is well deserved.

David Cowan, Head of Consulting Services

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