Insurance firms breached data laws

Three insurance companies have admitted breaking data protection laws by possessing personal information on 15 people which was obtained by a private detective from a leak in the Department of Social Protection.

Zurich Insurance, FBD Insurance and Travelers Insurance Company pleaded guilty at Dublin District Court yesterday to 10 counts of violating the Data Protection Act.

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

The three insurance companies were prosecuted following a probe by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner.

It had been learned that a private detective agency was given personal information in relation to people’s employment, earnings and welfare claims, from a source in the Department of Social Protection, Judge Ryan heard.

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

Tony Delaney, assistant data protection commissioner, said the case against the three insurance companies focused on personal data obtained from the computer system of the Department of Social Protection.

He described the breach of the data protection legislation as “very, very serious”. 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 said insurance companies were “well aware” that any data they handle or use must be publicly available.

Lawyers for the defendants asked the court to note that they had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and they asked the judge to consider applying the Probation Offender’s Act, which would spare the three insurance companies criminal convictions.

“Obviously these are extremely serious matters, that people’s private detail should be dealt with in such a manner,” said Judge Ryan.

The case was adjourned until Mar 5 next.

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