The UK Information Commissioner has told public figures such as doctors that they face fines if they lose personal data belonging to people in their care. And that includes if their laptop is pinched and they are found to have been negligent.

According to the Times newspaper, Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, thinks a "blatant breach of fundamental observation" should attract a financial penalty and be recorded as a criminal offence. An example he gave was a hospital employee leaving a laptop in a car which was then stolen.

Although the plan would surely meet with widespread opposition, Thomas does make the very good point that anybody storing sensitive personal data should use encryption to protect it. That's surely common sense security.

Thomas made his remarks in a House of Lords Committee as he suggested that "knowingly or recklessly" transgressing data protection laws should be rewarded with a £5,000 fine in a magistrates' court.

Health-related data

Currently, the Information Commission can issue enforcement notices but there is no criminality attached. Effectively, the notice serves as a warning - hence Thomas calling for a "deterrent" to be put in place.

Thomas is undoubtedly worried about the growing number of health-related data issues.

In September researchers from Glamorgan University's Forensic Science found an alarming amount of personal data left on hard drives being sold on eBay.

The researchers found 62 per cent of drives sold contained company records, personal information, financial data and even paedophilic content which resulted in a police investigation in Wales.

Protect your laptop

"Over the past three years the study has shown a slight reduction in the proportion of drives containing data," says Jon Godfrey of LCS ( Life Cycle Services). "But this is not the true picture. We must consider the increase both in the size of the drives and the [growth] in their use. The volume of data being leaked has increased massively."

But it's not just in the health sector that the fines could be imposed - in February the Financial Services Authority (FSA) fined the Nationwide Building Society £980,000 after a laptop was stolen containing personal financial details.

Under the Information Commissioner's proposals, this would also result in a criminal prosecution.