Exclusive: junior doctors' details exposed online
Updated on 25 April 2007
Adding insult to injury? The intimate details of thousands of junior doctors are left wide open on the internet.
The Medical Training Application Service or MTAS is a computer system where student and junior doctors apply for jobs - a system they were repeatedly assured was secure.
Today Channel Four News can reveal that since at least 9 o' clock this morning, the details of medical students applying for foundation course posts - the first year to become a junior doctor - were openly available to the public.
This is astonishing. Not only can we see what they wrote in their applications; their addresses; their phone numbers; who their referees are. We can also see if there were white, heterosexual, gay Asian, Christian, Jewish or Hindu, and we can also see if they have got police records and what the crime was.
Once we were informed we checked the site to see if there had been a massive breach of this already controversial system - and there had been.
At 4.35pm we told the Department of Health. The chair of the British Medical Association's Junior Doctors Committee also called the department - at 5.05 they closed the breach - it took them just half an hour.
"I am absolutely appalled to get in and see this information - I am just flabbergasted."- Jo Hilborne, BMA junior doctors committee.
They were completely unaware that it had been open - at a minimum since this morning.
"I am absolutely appalled to get in and see this information - I am just flabbergasted."
- Jo Hilborne, BMA junior doctors committee.
What's more, the doctor who told Channel 4 News that there was this problem did not come to us initially. He went to the Information Commissioners Office - the custodians of data protection. They said there wasn't much they could do.
Junior doctors have been protesting against MTAS since the outset. Today, their action group Remedy UK, condemned this hole in the security.
"I'm absolutely gob-smacked, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I'm not going to be able to laugh because it's so serious. After I've scraped my jaw up off the floor I'll say that I'm not really surprised - it's a level of ineptitude that has characterised this whole procecss. It takes the concept of a botched IT job just to a new dimension." - Matt Jameson-Evans, Remedy UK
"We apologise to any applicants whose details have been improperly accessed. This URL was made available to a strictly limited number of people making checks as part of the employment process"- Department of Health statement
No Minister was available for interview tonight. Instead they issued this statement:
"We apologise to any applicants whose details have been improperly accessed. This URL was made available to a strictly limited number of people making checks as part of the employment process.
This information was never publicly available through the MTAS website and was only accessible for a short period of time after details of the URL were leaked. The MTAS team fixed the problem as soon as it was brought to their attention.
This is a very serious matter and is under investigation. "
When MTAS was launched in January - it kept crashing, listed the wrong jobs, some of the best candidates were excluded from posts and the application period had to be extended.
The Health Secretary last week apologised for the distress it caused junior doctors but yesterday she said this: "It has not been a complete unmitigated disaster...has been working well particularly for GP posts." - Patricia Hewitt
This has affected first year junior doctors - hundreds and hundreds of them. Whose sexual orientation, whose mobile telephone numbers, home addresses, etc have been left wide open for anybody knowing the URL.
Experts say the level of data included in the applications makes it a gold mine for identity theft and fraud.
It is also likely to be a breach of the data protection act and could lead to criminal charges.
We approached the Information Commissioner for a response this evening. A spokesperson said:
"The Information Commissioner's Office takes breaches of privacy very seriously. We are pleased that immediate action was taken to remove the information from the website. We will now be looking further into the circumstances around this breach."
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's interview
Throughout the junior doctors' recruitment saga, we've been asking the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt to appear on the programme, but she's always declined - and tonight was no exception.
We offer her an open invitation to come on to Channel 4 News. J
Joining us instead was the Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who's at Westminster:
Q - Your reaction?
A - Well I think it's shocking. I think this is a very serious matter. It's something which should never have happened. It's something which clearly is going to further undermine what is already desperately low morale amongst junior doctors, many of whom have indeed as you said suffered considerable disadvantage to the way this system is working.
People we're trying to give greater confidence to, and the department should have understood that, and I don't think the department can say this was something they shouldn't have been aware of. The risks to the security of the site had been highlighted to them before.
I have with me here with me a letter from the British Orthopaedic Trainees Association of the 5th of March to Patricia Hewitt, highlighting risks to security on the site because shortlisters for interview had access not only to the applicants they were shortlisting but to everybody in their region. Now if there were security lapses more than a month ago clearly there ought to have been much heightened security on the site since then.
Q - Looking at it from the perspective of the doctors who have been affected they have really no redress. Their addresses are out there, their details are out there and there is little more sensitive to a doctor than the privacy of where they live. Once a doctor's place of life is exposed, they are themselves in danger.
A - Well I hope it is the case that this data has not gone in too many directions, but we can't, I guess you can't be at all sure about the extent to which this data has become available and to whom it's become available.
Q - The extraordinary thing is MTAS the people who run this site say it wasn't open for very long. The truth is you and I both know they don't know.
A - That's right and it's very important therefore that the information commissioner should investigate this and do so urgently. You say the junior doctors have no redress but frankly there should be redress under the data protection acts. There should be redress against anybody who is responsible for such a serious breach of people's data confidentiality. But frankly, I come back to the point I was making a moment ago. We know that more than a month ago there was a risk to security.
It was a different one but concerned access to data for those who were being interviewed so that everybody doing shortlisting in a region saw everybody's data not just the people they were responsible for in their particular narrow specialty. That was a serious lapse, this is another and more serious lapse. I'm afraid it's another, it's a catalogue of these failures.
Q - One thing we can be sure of is that there will be no political consequence to this.
A - There are a range of serious consequences to this. You have not been able to bring ministers or Patricia Hewitt to your studio to answer questions. Back on March 19 I was able to bring Patricia Hewitt to the House of Commons for the first time to answer questions in person. Yesterday afternoon we brought her to the House of Commons, you showed the debate there. It's on our time. She didn't volunteer to come to the House.
Q - Given that there is yet another issue here tonight. Is it a resignation matter?
A - We've arrived at the point where there is no confidence in Patricia Hewitt. I know that in a few weeks time the Prime Minister will be leaving. There will be a new Prime Minister.
Q - Does no confidence amount for a call for her to go?
A - She will go. I have no doubt about that. There is no realistic prospect of Patricia Hewitt commanding confidence in the national health service anymore. The junior doctors have completely lost confidence in her and that is true as we saw in the way in which Unison received health ministers, in the way in which the Royal College of Nursing criticised her last week.