A computer containing the personal details of 33,000 children has been stolen from the offices of a local authority, in the latest in a series of data privacy breaches.

Wigan borough council said the information included names, dates of birth, and any special needs and free meal eligibility of children aged between seven and 16. Burglars stole the laptop in January, but the council only made the news public on Friday.

There has been a stream of similar incidents in the UK over the past two years. Last year a memory stick containing the names, addresses and expected release dates of all 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales was lost by a government contractor.

Some IT experts say public fears over data losses have been overplayed. Information is often protected by passwords, making it hard for thieves to gain access to the data.

Wigan council on Friday said that the information on the stolen computer was password-protected.

However, other analysts argue that the recent spate of cases sounds a warning against the government’s tendency to bring together data on individuals in order to provide more integrated services. ContactPoint, a government database on children, is a recent and controversial example.

Nick Hudson, Wigan’s director of children and young people’s services, played down the security risks to families, saying: “Apart from the names, the data on the children is in the form of numbers and codes and there are no comments or individual case notes.”

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