The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has warned employees that walking off with the personal information of their employer when changing jobs, is a criminal offence.

The warning came on the day a paralegal, who previously worked at Jordans Solicitors in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, was prosecuted for illegally taking the sensitive information of over 100 people before leaving for a rival firm. The information was contained in six emails sent by James Pickles in the weeks before he left the firm. Pickles had hoped to use the information, which included workload lists, file notes and template documents but still contained sensitive personal data, in his new role. 

ICO Head of Enforcement, Stephen Eckersley, said:

Stealing personal information is a crime. The information contained in the documents taken by James Pickles included sensitive details relating to individuals involved in ongoing legal proceedings. He took this information without the permission of his former employer and has been rewarded with a day in court and a substantial fine."

Employees may think work related documents that they have produced or worked on belong to them and so they are entitled to take them when they leave. But if they include people’s details, then taking them without permission is breaking the law. Don’t risk a day in court.”

Unlawfully obtaining or accessing personal data is a criminal offence under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The offence is punishable by way of ‘fine only’ - up to £5,000 in a Magistrates Court or an unlimited fine in a Crown Court. The ICO continues to call for more effective deterrent sentences, including the threat of prison, to be available to the courts to stop the unlawful use of personal information.

Trying to get someone else to unlawfully acquire personal data is a criminal offence. A former employee of insurer LV= was prosecuted in April 2016 by the ICO for attempting to obtain personal data. David Barlow Lewis pleaded guilty to trying to get an existing LV= employee to sell him customer data

An ICO spokesperson said: “Stealing personal information is a crime. Lewis may have failed in his attempt to buy personal data but his intention was clear. Anyone who tries to unlawfully obtain, disclose or sell personal data should expect to see themselves hauled before the courts.”