‘Public sector accountants must protect data as much as money’

30 Nov 18

Public sector accountants have a responsibility to protect data as well as money, a top justice official has told PF International.

Anthony Harbinson, director of safer communities at the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, told PF International that the public sector should “treat data and information as money and protect it”.

He was speaking after an event on governance in the fight against fraud in Brussels on Tuesday.

Harbinson referred to the NHS WannaCry attack last year, which cost the UK health service £92m, locking down computers and leading to cancelled appointments. Hackers sent out messages on screens demanding money from users to get data back. These attacks can “stop everything working”, he said.

It is therefore important that the sector, which holds personal details of citizens ranging from health records to financial data, is prepared for possible attempts of attacks and other financial crime, he said.

Harbinson told PF International that accountants had “complete knowledge” of what is going on in an organisation and had the “critical analysis, data analysation and checking skills” that could help tackle fraud and prevent attacks.

“It’s not just about the money,’ he said. “The protection of the data is to me almost as important as the protection of the money.

“If a local authority is missing a million pounds, you’d be shocked and people would be sacked. But if a local authority losses one million personal details, such as bank accounts and other data, it is equally going to get somebody sacked.

“We have to treat data and information as money and protect it. I think accountants have the skills and the ability to really play a key role in that.”

He also said that IT, which is an important tool to tackle fraud and spot scams, often falls under the responsibility of the directors of finance.

“So you can’t just say that is a ‘techy’ issue. The director of finance – who is usually a qualified accountant – needs to make sure they understand their responsibility.”

He added that the sector should ensure it is providing staff with awareness training, that all systems are up to date and secure, and that there is an audit function that does “almost daily” checks. 

This won’t necessarily be more expensive, he explained, as money is already allocated to setting up system. But, he highlighted, a lot of the time anti-fraud systems are not up to date, which provides loopholes for criminals to attack. 

He added: “The public sector cannot afford to be behind the curve on any of this stuff [fraud].

“We need to be aware that there is more coming down the line.”

Harbinson gave a keynote speech at the Accountancy Europe’s event in Brussels, which was attended by professionals from the public, private and third sector.

In his speech, Harbinson said half of all new crimes are now digital.

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