DEFRA admits to data loss but denies cover-up

Six months after routine checks uncovered the loss of 1 CD and 38 data tapes, DEFRA Secretary Hillary Benn has admitted the loss in the Commons. Mr Benn’s opposite number in the Shadow Cabinet, Nick Herbert, was quick to state that the interval between the loss and its admission suggests that a cover-up has taken place.

Mr Benn was allegedly unaware of the loss until October 28th when whistle-blowers leaked the story to the press. Mr Benn also said that since the loss had occurred, 35 of the data tapes had been recovered. This still leaves 3 tapes and the CD unaccounted for.

The personal information stored on the tapes relates to the banking details and other sensitive data of farmers registered with DEFRA. The loss could put at risk the livelihoods of hundreds of agricultural workers. However, Mr Benn reassured farmers in a statement on Friday that there was very little likelihood of the data being accessed by outside parties.

The data itself is encrypted and thought by DEFRA officials to be unreadable by anyone other than sanctioned members of Rural Payments Agency (RPA) staff. According to Mr Benn, the low threat level explains why he was only recently alerted as to the loss.

Mr Herbert countered the assurances by calling for an investigation into the data loss. This would aim to establish publicly who discovered the loss, when DEFRA officials were informed and why Mr Benn was apparently left in the dark for so long. Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats went even further than Mr Herbert, using the opportunity to attack the government for a perceived lack of competence in the handling of personal data across all of its departments.

National Farmers’ Union President Peter Kendal spoke out for the affected group. Rather than criticising the government directly, he echoed Mr Herbert in calling for an explanation. Understandably Mr Kendal also called for an assurance from DEFRA and the RPA that the remaining tapes would be recovered in the near future.

The lack of a dialogue between department officials, their ministerial representatives, the Commons and the affected group of farmers has, once again, highlighted the need for robust data management and security practises, whether in government or indeed in the private sector.

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