EXCLUSIVE: Private data of children is lost
HIGHLY sensitive and personal information relating to children with special needs has been left at a petrol station.
A member of the public found the information, stored on a computer memory stick, on the floor of a service station on the A303 in Somerset.
The highly confidential data gives names and dates of birth for children and a description of their behavioural problems.
The information, contained in an electronic folder headed Annual Reviews, tells how one boy has a tendency towards "inappropriate physical behaviour with another person".
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A Westcountry grandmother was horrified after finding the information available on the memory stick and contacted the WMN.
Susan Howard, from North Tawton, near Okehampton, Devon, said: "I'm shocked to the core. I have details of 10 children on here.
"The first page tells me a boy's name and the name of his mother and says that he has Asperger's Syndrome. It tells me that he is in Year 8 and the name of his class."
The memory stick also holds a form template entitled "Statement of Special Educational Needs".
The stick was found several weeks ago at Podimore Service Station, near Yeovil, and passed on to Mrs Howard by another member of her family who does not have a computer.
Mrs Howard said: "For another boy, it tells me he has trouble controlling his temper and that he has to avoid inappropriate physical contact with other people."
Mrs Howard has a disabled daughter herself and thinks this kind of information could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
She said: "I dread to think what some people might do with that knowledge.
"If I thought that someone had picked up information like that about my daughter, I would be devastated."
The memory stick is about two-and-a-half inches long with a pen clip on the end of it.
Mrs Howard said she felt sympathy for whoever had lost the stick.
"It's so easy to lose. I would love to find out who this belongs to – they must be devastated."
Mrs Howard added that she was amazed the information on the stick was not encrypted in any way and she was easily able to open it as a Microsoft Word document.
She has now handed the memory stick to the police.
A Devon and Cornwall Police said the stick would be analysed by its hi-tech crime unit, which would try to find out where it had come from.
Inspector Sean Pepper said: "The first thing is to see where it has come from and then we will liaise with that individual or organisation to address the issue."
Devon MP Geoffrey Cox, who has a particular political interest in the provision of special needs education, said he was "extremely concerned" to hear about the find.
"That's going to cause immense distress. It's highly confidential information that should never be released. It's clearly extremely concerning to hear it's been picked up at a petrol station."
Mr Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, said matters relating to special needs children were particularly sensitive as they were especially vulnerable. "I very much hope the police will get to the bottom of where this has come from because whoever it is clearly needs to clean up their act."
The apparent security breach is the latest in a series of incidents nationwide where confidential information has been found by members of the public.
In January, bank details and other personal information were found scattered on a roundabout near Exeter Airport. Later the same month, a military laptop containing the personal details of 600,000 people was stolen from a car in Birmingham.
And last year, there was an outcry after HM Revenue and Customs lost the details of 25 million child benefit claimants held on two computer discs.
Mr Cox said: "These incidents are happening more and more, showing that Government organisations and local government organisations need to have very firm and clear rules about when information can be taken out of the office."