12 November 2008
The Government has launched an inquiry after an Atos Origin employee lost a memory stick with user names and passwords for a key government computer system in a pub car park.
Atos Origin admitted there had been a "direct breach" of its procedures and it was taking the matter "extremely seriously", but maintained the integrity of the Gateway website had not been compromised.
This was not enough for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has demanded that the company "explain itself" after such a basic breach of strict rules.
Following the Atos debacle, Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell sent out fresh instructions to ministers over how sensitive data must be handled.
"There are very strict rules about information being outside buildings and these have to be followed," he said. "This recent case with a private company, where information about individuals has been lost, makes me even more determined that we will root out this problem about leaving things around."
The Government Gateway website allows members of the public to access hundreds of government services including self-assessment tax returns, pension entitlements and some benefits.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said the device contained user names and passwords for testing an old version of the system, and all the information was encrypted.
"We are taking this issue extremely seriously and a full and urgent investigation is under way," she said. "We moved immediately to make sure there was no conceivable risk to users of the Government Gateway, and are convinced the integrity of the Government Gateway has not been compromised.
"On the basis of an initial examination of the contents of the memory stick, it is our experts' opinion that the contents would not allow anyone to breach the very strong security safeguards protecting the website."
She said the system had been shut down "for a short period as a precaution".
A spokesman for Atos Origin, which runs Gateway, said one of its employees had "misplaced" the stick at the car park of the Orbital Pub in Cannock, Staffordshire, near to where the firm is based.
"The company takes the loss of this device very seriously and we are currently carrying out a full investigation of both the circumstances surrounding its loss and the data content of the stick," he added.
"It is clear that the employee removed the device from company premises in direct breach of our own operating procedure.
"Atos Origin is working very closely with the government and the police. The company takes full responsibility for this loss and will discipline the individual involved.”
The company refused to comment further in case the investigation became a criminal matter.