Insurance firms spared conviction for breaching data protection laws

Three insurance companies have been spared criminal convictions for possessing personal information on 15 people which was obtained by a private detective from a leak in the Department of Social Protection.

Zurich Insurance Plc, FBD Insurance Plc and Travelers Insurance Company Ltd had pleaded guilty last month at Dublin District Court to ten counts of violating the Data Protection Act.

They faced possible fines of €3,000 per charge, however, Judge Ann Ryan had held that they would be spared criminal convictions and the monetary penalties if they each gave €20,000 to charity.

Today lawyers for the three companies furnished the judge with receipts showing that they had made the donations to the Capuchin Day Centre for homeless people in Dublin city centre.

Judge Ryan then imposed the Probation Offender's Act in respect of the three companies.

They had been prosecuted following a probe by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. It had been learned that a private detective agency obtained personal information in relation to people's employment, earnings and welfare claims, from a source in the Department of Social Protection, Judge Ryan had heard.

A separate Garda investigation has been launched in connection with the leaking of the data.

During the hearing, Tony Delaney, Assistant Data Protection Commissioner, had said the case against the three insurance companies focussed on personal data obtained from the computer system of the Department of Social Protection.

Data was transmitted from the government department's computer system to a detective agency, “and that information made its way to insurance companies.”

A phone number contacted by an official in the government department led to Reliance Investigation Services, a private detective agency, in Calverstown, Co. Kildare.

Reliance Investigation Services' office was searched in December 2010 and files, including their “active client list”, were examined. The three insurance companies were identified as clients from VAT numbers on invoices for services provided by the detective agency.

Mr Delaney had said insurance companies were “well aware” that any data they handle or use must be publicly available. The typical information Reliance Investigation Services provided to the three insurance companies included: people's PPS numbers, dates of birth, addresses, details of employment and earnings as well as social welfare claims.

Mr Delaney had also said that “details in relation to the spouse as well” were also passed on to Travelers Insurance Company Ltd. “In one case at least the spouse,” Mr Delaney had also said regarding the data given to FBD Insurance Plc .

The Department of Social Protection had confirmed that this information was not publicly available and had been stored securely on their computer system.

The court had also heard that the defendants had co-operated with the investigation and had taken steps in relation to hiring of private investigators to ensure that there are no further data protection breaches. They had also undertaken to pay the commissioner’s legal costs, which were undisclosed.

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