Hundreds of government laptops with potentially sensitive information are being lost or stolen, a study shows.
Many sensitive files on laptops are not encrypted
One in 17 key public sector workers, like government or defence officials, say they have either lost theirs or had them stolen, said security firm Thales.
Those who do hold on to them admit they do not use any kind of encryption to protect sensitive information.
Most rely on passwords to prevent access to files and a surprising number write their passwords down.
The figures revealed by electronic security company Thales will worry many, particularly when personal computer security has been highlighted by a summer of internet viruses.
The survey showed that at least 60 of the 200 MoD and government laptops lost or stolen will have contained sensitive information.
'LOST' LAPTOPS 1996 TO 2002
Work and Pensions: 419
International Development: 115
Lord Chancellor's Dept: 77
Cabinet Office: 43
Northern Ireland Office: 3
Such information could have serious consequences for national security should it fall into the wrong hands, according to Paul Jackson of Thales.
"At a time of heightened national security, the need for data on public sector laptops to be secure has never been more important.
"It is staggering that the vast majority of public sector do not employ mechanisms for encrypting data on the hard disk and hence make it difficult for stored files on stolen laptops to be read."
The MoD is now taking steps to protect information on employee laptops by insisting all hard disks are encrypted. This means information is scrambled and can only be unscrambled using the correct passwords.
But making it more difficult to access information on the laptops could also be done by supplementing passwords with extra security tokens, like smart cards.
Government laptops hit the headlines in 2000 when the then armed forces minister, John Spellar, had his stolen from his home. An MI6 officer also left his in a taxi after a night out.
Yet another was "lost" when an MI5 employee put his on the ground to buy a train ticket.