MoD admits it has no idea what was on 400 stolen laptops

Across government, departments are losing more than 200 computers a year, many holding sensitive information
Click to follow

The Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday that it was urgently checking the information thought to be held on more than 400 laptops stolen from the department in the past five years, including at least 68 stolen in 2007 alone.

The admission came after revelations that a laptop containing personal details – including passport numbers, bank details and national insurance numbers – of more than 600,000 people who had expressed an interest in enlisting had been stolen from the car of a naval officer in Birmingham.

It is the latest in a string of losses by both the Government and private companies including more than 25 million names lost on two disks by Revenue & Customs officers.

Official figures revealed through parliamentary answers show that in the last year all government departments reported at least 208 laptops, and a number of PCs, stolen. By far the worst culprit is the MoD. Since 2003 it has reported 420 laptops stolen. An MoD spokesman yesterday said he could not say whether the laptops contained sensitive information or not.

"This has to be seen in the context of a department which employs 300,000 people," he said. "It is unacceptable to lose that many which is why procedures and under review all the time. In the light of this latest loss we are searching every record of missing laptops to find out exactly what's going on."

Later this week the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, will give a statement to the House of Commons about the latest loss. The MoD initially kept news of the data loss under wraps – the laptop was reported stolen on 9 January – on police advice.

Richard Thomas , the Information Commissioner, yesterday expressed concern at the sensitivity of the latest data loss. "The volume of information in this case is significant and I am concerned about the sensitivity of some of the information and the fact it pertains to military personnel," he said. "But this is not just about security. We will need to know why so much information was held on a laptop and whether it had been retained for too long.

"We will require satisfactory answers from the MoD and a firm assurance that steps have been taken to improve data protection practices before deciding on the appropriate action."

A week earlier, the influential House of Commons Justice Committee, chaired by Alan Beith, the former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, demanded tougher laws to protect personal data. Yesterday Mr Beith said that a "change of culture" was needed and that a criminal sanction of the "reckless" use of such information would help bring this about. "The situation is very serious," he said. "People are extraordinary blasé. The procedures are hopelessly lax."

Police have released details of the stolen laptop. It is a a black Compaq Evo N600c with a 1.5in silver line running top to bottom, right of centre. It also features a fixed mouse area with a blue rubber cursor button. The left rubber foot is possibly missing and one of the lid catches broken. Anyone with information is asked to call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Lost data: Mislaid, dumped or stolen disks

18 January 2008: Hundreds of Department of Pensions documents found on an Exeter roundabout.

9 January 2008: Laptop holding details of 600,000 military personnel stolen from a car in Birmingham.

December 2007: Details of three million driver theory test candidates were lost in the US in May.

October 2007 Details of 25 million people on two HMRC disks go missing.

September 2007: An HMRC laptop with 400 people's details stolen from a car.

August 2007: Database of thousands of secret phone records from police inquiries into terrorism and organised crime stolen.

November 2006: Three laptops containing Met police payroll details are stolen.