Prevent unauthorised access, disclosure or destruction of data

Ensuring the security of data requires paying attention to physical security, network security, plus the security of computer systems and files to prevent unauthorised access or unwanted changes to data, disclosure or destruction of data.

Data security arrangements need to be proportionate to the nature of the data and the risks involved. Attention to security is also important when data files are to be destroyed.

Data that contain personal information should be treated with higher levels of security than data that do not, as the safeguarding of personal data is dictated by national legislation, the Data Protection Act 2018, which states that personal data should only be accessible to authorised persons.

Personal data can be stored in digital files, or can exist in non-digital format: Patient records, signed consent forms, or interview cover sheets containing names, addresses and signatures.

Security can be made easier by:

  • Separating data content according to security needs, e.g. You can store participant names and addresses separately from survey files.
  • Encrypting data containing personal information before these are stored or transmitted.

Physical data security

Physical data security includes:

  • Controlling access to rooms and buildings where data, computers or media are held.
  • Logging the removal of, and access to, media or hardcopy material in storerooms.
  • Transporting sensitive data only under exceptional circumstances, even for repair purposes. For example, giving a failed hard drive containing sensitive data to a computer manufacturer may breach security.

Network security

Network security means:

  • Not storing confidential data, such as those containing personal information on servers or computers connected to an external network, particularly servers that host internet services.
  • Firewall protection, security-related upgrades and patches to operating systems to avoid viruses, trojans and malicious codes.

Security of computer systems

Security of computer systems and files may include:

  • Locking computer systems with a password and installing a firewall system.
  • Implementing password protection of, and controlled access to, individual data files, for example, allocating ‘no access’, ‘read only’, ‘read and write’ or ‘administrator only permissions.
  • Controlling access to restricted files or storage areas by encrypting them.
  • Imposing non-disclosure agreements for managers or those that have access to confidential data.
  • Not sending personal or confidential data via email. This should be encrypted and sent via a secure means, not email.
  • Destroying data in a consistent and robust manner when needed.
  • Protecting servers by power surge protection systems through line-interactive uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems.
  • Remembering that file-sharing services, such as Google Docs, OneDrive and Dropbox, may not be suitable for confidential data.

Data security and cloud storage

Cloud-based* storage, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud or YouSendIt is easy to use, but not necessarily permanent or secure.

Cloud-based storage is usually overseas and, therefore, not subject to UK law. Consequently, its use could be in violation of the UK Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA) and/or the UK General Data Protection Regulation, which require that personal and sensitive data should not be transferred to other countries without adequate protection.

Cloud data storage should not be used for high-risk information, such as files that contain personal or sensitive information or that have a very high intellectual property or commercial value. While file encryption safeguards data files to a certain degree, it does not negate the requirements of the DPA.

Alternatives are secure FTP (SFTP) servers, secure content management systems set up and controlled by an institution or secure workspaces. See our guidance on file sharing.