The UK Defence Secretary Des Browne has revealed three Ministry of Defence (MoD) laptops containing personal data of thousands of potential recruits have been stolen in the past two years.

The revelation follows the theft of a Royal Navy laptop containing unencrypted data including passport details, bank account numbers and family details dating back as far as 1997 from a navy officer’s car earlier this year.

Information stored on the laptops was in breach of security regulations, he says.

“We have software protection through which individual IT systems and the databases they contain must be accredited by the appropriate MoD authorities.”

“Our internal investigations following this theft reveal that those procedures were not followed,” Browne says.

Browne told MPs he has appointed a senior Data Protection Officer to ensure MoD practices and procedures are at the highest possible standard.

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He has also asked Information Advisory Council chairman Sir Edmund Burton to conduct an independent review of the circumstances that led to the “systematic failures”.

A Royal Navy laptop similar to the one stolen this year was taken from a car in Manchester in October 2006 and an army recruiting laptop was stolen from a careers office in Edinburgh in December 2005.

The thefts were not reported to MoD officials at the time as it was believed all data held on them was encrypted.

Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey says the loss is due to the “foolishness” of the officer responsible and it is clear “the systems and controls to stop this sort of thing simply haven’t worked, if indeed they really existed”.

By Elizabeth Clifford-Marsh