There needs to be a great improvement in awareness among Hospital Authority workers of the need to keep private data secure, says the former privacy commissioner heading a taskforce investigating data leaks from public hospitals. Stephen Lau Ka-men, who is chairing a four-member expert panel looking at personal data systems in public hospitals, said after its first meeting yesterday that more should be done to enhance the handling of patients' records. 'The panel strongly believes there is room for improvement following the recent spate of incidents.' He said the problem involved more than just information technology because people's awareness of data privacy was also important. Authority chief executive Shane Solomon set up the expert panel on Monday to investigate data leaks from public hospitals following the loss of electronic devices containing the data of 16,000 patients. Mr Solomon said on Tuesday that with immediate effect the downloading of patients' data would only be allowed if the information was encrypted, and staff would only be allowed to take removable drives containing patient data away from hospitals with the written approval of hospital chief executives. Mr Lau said the use of removable memory devices should be allowed if it could enhance work efficiency. 'At the same time, workers' sensitivity and alertness to data privacy, especially that of the patients, should be enhanced,' he said. 'It could be achieved by education and improving the culture among workers regarding the handling of private information.' The taskforce will meet again late this month and report to the Hospital Authority three months later on recommendations to prevent thefts, how to make data inaccessible to others in case of theft, and whether there were grounds for any staff to be punished. Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun said in a radio programme yesterday morning that he had decided to take the unprecedented step of inspecting the personal data systems at public hospitals because the data-loss incidents were so serious. The commission would deploy three or four people, including lawyers and investigators, to conduct inspections. A former Hospital Authority doctor, who gave his surname as Chung, told the same radio programme that medical staff needed to use removable drives to store patients' data. 'We have to take our work home as we are so busy in the hospitals and there is so much work,' he said.