Criminal charges for data security breaches such as that at HM Revenue and Customs could be brought against both organisations and individuals, if new laws proposed by the data protection watchdog are introduced.
UK information commissioner Richard Thomas has recommended to the Ministry of Justice that people who were "grossly negligent" with individuals' private data should face criminal action.
Late last month, in evidence to the House of Lords constitution committee, he also called for his office to be allowed to conduct spot-checks of organisations' data protection systems — a measure that prime minister Gordon Brown has now agreed, in response to HMRC's loss of 25 million people's records on disks sent to the National Audit Office.
The information commissioner took the opportunity to reinforce his call for new criminal laws to cover data breaches, saying this "would serve as a strong deterrent and would send a very strong signal that it is completely unacceptable to be cavalier with people's personal information".
He added: "Such a change will enable us to prosecute organisations where appropriate."
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office says the watchdog's proposed new laws could be applied either to individuals or entire organisations.
"Whether or not criminal charges would be brought against an individual or an organisation would depend on the nature of the data breach and the circumstances under which it occurred," she says.
The government has so far blamed a single junior member of staff at HMRC for breaking the department's own rules in despatching the unencrypted data on disks through the post service provided by contractor TNT.
But the Conservative Party has claimed more senior civil servants are to blame for refusing to remove sensitive data — which was not required by the NAO — because this would have required an extra payment to EDS, the IT services firm that provides HMRC's data services.
A review of the circumstances leading to the fiasco at HMRC is now being carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Brown has also ordered cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to check data security measures across all Whitehall departments.