back to article ICO fines council £120,000 for crypto email fail

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been fined £120,000 for failing to use proper cryptography, resulting in the details of a child-protection case being shared with the wrong people. Last December a solicitor involved in a child-protection case sent 11 e-mails relating to the case to the wrong email address, a simple typo meaning …


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  1. adam payne Silver badge

    The people of Stoke will have to watch our for the extra bin inspectors they'll employ to get the money back.

  2. The BigYin

    And the software is free!

    As in price and freedom. OK, deployment and training still cost; but FFS, sort it out already.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ok I'm struggling here....

    ...the solicitor fails to follow guidelines, fucks up the email send address and it's the council that's at fault?

    Ok so they should of had the software, but at the end of the day, if the solicitor had followed the guidelines, all that would of happened is the council legal team would have some gibberish in their inbox and gone to IT for help (or hit delete).

    1. Oliver Mayes

      Re: Ok I'm struggling here....

      *eye twitch* HAVE, would HAVE. Not 'would of'.

      Sorry, but this is probably the most irritating grammatical mistake to me.

    2. 0laf Silver badge

      Re: Ok I'm struggling here....

      Try this one.

      You have a laptop you use at work. You have customer details on it unencrypted but it doesn't leave the building. In fact it's locked in a cupboard.

      Someone breaks into your building kicks in the cupboard door and steals the laptop.

      According the the ICO you're at fault for not encrypting the laptop, however if it had been on an unencrypted desktop in the open office you'd be ok.

      In general the ICO is doing a good job, directors need to be scared of these fines. If the individual employee could be blamed there would be no incentive for the directors to do anything other than fire that unlucky schmuck. Like HMRC did to the poor boob that posted the CDs that got lost. Director encouraging bad practice gets a sideways promotion, worky gets P45.

    3. Tim Jenkins

      Re: Ok I'm struggling here....

      "the Council's own legal department had neither the skills nor the software to decrypt messages"

      The external solicitor was missing a trick here. By sending every email to the council encrypted, they could have had a lovely time billing them for dealing with all the resulting 'huh', 'wtf' and other puzzled responses...

      1. David 79

        Re: Ok I'm struggling here....

        There was no external solicitor - despite the confusing reference in the article to decrypting incoming messages, the offending message was sent by an inhouse solicitor at the council.

  4. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    A tricky one really

    Obviously, a punishment needs to be in place for this sort of cock-up, but when the punishment is a fine, and when the money comes from the public purse, the punishment ends up being metered against the council tax payers of Stoke, not the muppets responsible.

    For this reason, I don't think sanctions of this sort should be leveid against public bodies. Fines, if any, should be against the individuals responsible.

    Forced implementation of correct policies would go a lot further towards resolving the issue, it's just a shame that the mentality is one of punishment and revenge, rather than correction.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A tricky one really

      "the punishment ends up being metered against the council tax payers of Stoke"

      aka, the victims by parental inheritance. It is the tax payer's children who were exposed as a result of this. Fines aimed at councils should be reduced to reasonable amounts £1000-£5000 and applied on an employee level - like if you're caught selling cigs/alcohol to under-age people. Possibly shared up the food chain to the employees boss etc.

    2. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: A tricky one really

      I think the punishment should be written on a P45, or whatever the thing that replaces it from next April is.

  5. alain williams Silver badge


    It is about time that people learn how to use encrypted email, it is not exactly hard - I have been using PGP for years.

    I don't use it for everything, but some things.

  6. thermionic

    "like a postcard" ?

    The issue here isn't access in transit, that's a very easy problem to solve with TLS.

    The issue is encryption of contents allowing the intended receiver to decrypt while not allowing an unintended receiver to decrypt, this is not a simple problem to solve.

    Why people still insist on using email for transferring data of this type I haven't a clue.

  7. RonWheeler

    You'd think

    they could use something like Winzip password or the likes. Even wihout some ubercomplex council-wide crypto (which lets face it, isn't actually an intercompany standard back here in the real world) a bit of common sense wouldn't go amiss.

  8. daftdave

    Crypto wouldn't have helped

    Alice has her e-mail client set up to send encrypted messages to Bob, and Stoke city council. She writes a message to Stoke City council, but sends it to Bob by mistake.

    So her mail client, being clever, encrypts it for Bob. So, Bob can decrypt it (because Bob is allowed to decrypt mail that's been encrypted for him right?), and sees a confidential message that should have been sent to Stoke.

    To put this in the context of PGP encryption. Alice would have a public key for Bob and a public key for Stoke. If she sends a message to Bob using, say, Thunderbird, then Thunderbird will select Bob's key, because it will naturally be unaware that Bob isn't the intended recipient.

    1. RonWheeler
      Thumb Up

      Re: Crypto wouldn't have helped

      Thank-you. Someone who actually understands the process.

  9. JaitcH

    The council members are the equivalent of the ...

    board of directors in a company and the mayor it's CEO.

    If a fine is imposed it should be paid from the pockets of these guys as they failed n their jobs.

    Why should taxpayers get stiffed again?

  10. jaycee331

    Oh Look...

    Yet another tough hand of justice dished out from the ICO to a public body and public purse.

    But if a private business is involved in a data offence, they get away with blaming it on a rogue employee or third party, receive big hug from the ICO and "guidance" to ensure it doesn't happen again.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ lack (or proliferation) of standards

    hit the nail (and the thumb) there

  12. Stuart James

    Email Encryption would have helped (if your using one that can revoke a message)

    @daftdave @RonWheeler

    Guys, crypto would have worked if you are using a solution that can revoke message after sending (no i am not referring to PGP or SMime). Most people realise they send the email to wrong person immediately after clicking the send button (it has most likely happened to I am sure), some dont of course, but being able to revoke once you figure it out is still better then never (and that is the case with PGP/SMime). PGP/SMime only works for techies anyway.

    Winzip is just laborious (exchanging passwords, its outside of your workflow), and TLS encryption does nothing other then protect the message in transit(most mail servers do this automatically anyway), as long as the recipients mail server accepts TLS which most do nowadays (even if the cert is not proper).

    So maybe worth looking at a service that can encrypt email in transit, at rest, can revoke after sending, and allows the sender to validate a recipient prior to opening the first message. (yes these solutions do exist)

    1. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: Email Encryption would have helped (if your using one that can revoke a message)

      How do you set up a system that allows you to access my Exchange Server and revoke an unopened message that is sitting in my Inbox, without my co-operation? And if I am not the intended recipient of your emails, you probably won't even think to ask me for it.

      1. H.Winter

        Re: Email Encryption would have helped (if your using one that can revoke a message)

        "How do you set up a system that allows you to access my Exchange Server and revoke an unopened message that is sitting in my Inbox..."

        "without my co-operation?"

        As above, just depends what options you have set.

      2. RICHTO Silver badge

        Re: Email Encryption would have helped (if your using one that can revoke a message)

        Very easily. See

  13. Stuart James

    Revoking email in the inbox

    Well I am not here to push some product, but there are a variety of email encryption solutions out there that can remove the right to access something that is delivered to you and sits in your inbox. The email that is delivered simply contains an encrypted attachment. The encrypted attachment can be decrypted by posting the data back to the server and authenticating, which decrypts the encrypted attachment .The encryption keys are stored on server, not in some public /private key arrangement where by private keys are always held be recipient. (SMime or GPG for example)

    This is not particular to any particular mail server, it is simply an encrypted document (potentially wrapped in a html form), that the sender has control over as it can revoke the keys or access to the keys within centralised server.

    So yes encryption (if you using something sensible) does allow you to revoke access to a document that is already delivered to an inbox.

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