LONDON - British Defense Secretary Des Browne told lawmakers Monday he could not discount the possibility that a stolen laptop containing sensitive details on 600,000 prospective military recruits had been specifically targeted for theft.
Browne said the data — including details of candidates' religions and some banking records — was not encrypted. The computer was snatched from the car of a Royal Navy recruitment officer in Birmingham, in central England, on Jan. 9.
"We have no reason to believe that this theft was specifically targeted against the officer or to acquire the laptop for the data held on it, but we cannot wholly discount this," Browne said.
The defense chief said intelligence services believed there could be risks to the potential recruits if the data fell into the hands of extremists.
"But there was no indication that this had happened," Browne said in the House of Commons.
Alarm has been raised among defense officials over the case, in part because police broke up an alleged plot last year to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier.
Prosecutors claim a gang planned to target a Muslim soldier in Birmingham, the same city where the laptop was lost.
Browne told lawmakers that two other military laptops, which contained unencrypted details of at least 500 people, had been stolen since 2005.
He said, in the latest case, the recruitment officer had breached procedures by having such a large volume of data stored on the laptop.
"It is not clear to me why recruiting officers routinely carry with them information on such a large number of people or, indeed, why the database retains this information at all," Brown said.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, the government's data watchdog, said he is concerned about the volume of information lost, which included passport numbers, insurance numbers, family background information and medical details.
Browne said his ministry had written to around 3,700 people whose bank details were included on the database.
Opposition Conservatives claimed that a total of 347 defense ministry laptops have been stolen since 2004. The latest case revealed "incompetence, mismanagement and poor procedures," Conservative defense spokesman Liam Fox said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government has suffered a string of problems with data handling. Last year, tax officials lost computer disks containing information — including banking records — on nearly half the population of the country.
Last month, Britain's top transport official said that a disk drive containing personal information on 3 million driving test candidates had been lost in the United States.