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Data Access Request Service (DARS): guidance notes on security

This security guidance is for organisations applying for data from NHS Digital. It advises how to supply the data security information we need to process your application.


This security guidance provides information on the controls that your organisation needs to have in place to be able to engage in a Data Sharing Agreement with NHS Digital. 

If you have an enquiry, or would like to give us feedback on the application form, guidance or web pages, call 0300 303 5678 or email [email protected].

Data security

The key to good data security is defence in depth, such as, having multi-layered security using differing tools and techniques. That way, if one level is compromised, further layers are in place to minimise further damage.

The following, standards and tools can be used to aid the development of security policies and processes:

Security requirements

To complete the security assurance in a timely manner it is recommended that you engage with your IT and IT Governance departments. Before submitting your security assurance:

1. NHS Digital Data Security and Protection Toolkit 

The Data Security and Protection Toolkit is an online self-assessment tool that allows organisations to measure their performance against the National Data Guardian’s 10 data security standards.

All organisations that have access to NHS patient data and systems should use this toolkit to provide assurance that they are practising good data security and that personal information is handled correctly.

This is the preferred method of assurance.

The aim of the DSPT is to develop the Data Security maturity of Organisations. 

Approval is based on meeting the standard see table below:

Standards Exceeded


Standards Met 


Approaching Standards

Can be approved may include special conditions

2. International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 

ISO27001 - Information Security Management System (ISMS)

ISO is a recognised international standard providing requirements for an information security management system (ISMS), there are more than a dozen standards in the ISO/IEC 27000 family. 

Organisations using a current ISO27001 certification must confirm that the Scope and the Statement of Applicability (SOA), includes the relevant standards from the ISO27000 family and is aligned to their role in the application.

3. System Level Security Policy (SLSP)

A System Level Security Policy (SLSP) can be provided as assurance this can either be a stand-alone document or be supported by the relevant policies within the organisation.


The SLSP should be used as a transitional assurance that enables the organisation to increase the maturity of their Data Security so that they are able to complete the preferred DSPT.

A guidance document will be available soon to help you construct an SLSP that can be used to help your organisation develop towards the preferred option of a DSPT. The SLSP needs to provide the same level of assurance that a DSPT would, to ensure that organisations are aligned to standards. 

If further guidance is required please refer to: All topics – NCSC.GOV.UK

NHS Digital follows the security guidance and best practice published by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). This is aimed at assisting all types of organisations in different sectors with data security concerns. The NCSC guidance should be referred for any data security support you may need.

In addition to the NCSC Guidance other recommended sources are:

  1. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
    This is a valuable source of Cyber Security information and standards. 
  2. Cloud Security Alliance (CSA)
    CSA is the world’s leading organisation dedicated to defining and raising awareness of best practices to help ensure a secure cloud computing environment.

Privacy guidance

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) publishes guidance on how to meet relevant data protection and privacy legislation including the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UKGDPR).

Cloud hosting

NHS Digital have published guidance that enables health and social care organisations to use cloud services and/or store patient data offshore.

Organisations that include the use of cloud services and/or store patient data offshore in their DARS applications will need to provide evidence that they have undertaken the steps described in the guidance for their application to progress.

NHS and social care data: off-shoring and the use of public cloud services provides an overview of the requirements. The Health and social care cloud security – good practice guide provides greater detail and a 4 step method to understand the risk of the data that needs to be stored and processed and the safeguards that must be put in place to do so, securely.

Step 1 - Understand the data you are dealing with
Step 2 – Assess the risks associated with the data
Step 3 – Implement appropriate controls
Step 4 – Monitor the implementation and ongoing risks

The Health and social care cloud security one page overview is as described a single page version of the 4 steps above to provide support to data controllers.

The Health and social care cloud risk framework should be used to assess and manage the risks associated with the use of public cloud services.

The Health and social care data risk model should be used to assess and record the details of any proposed use of cloud services, by producing a risk class indication which is used to define the required controls.

Specific DARS requirements 

Whilst the controls below should be identified in your risk assessment to meet your contractual obligations and data protection legislation (DPA/GDPR), they are listed here as requirements:

Data destruction – an NHS Digital approved method to prevent the recovery of any data that is no longer required (Principle 5) at the end of the DARS Agreement, at the retention period or on the issue of a Data Destruction Notice (DDN). 

Encryption at rest – encryption of data in cloud storage.

Encryption in transit – encryption of data in transit between the cloud provider and the end user.

Geography/jurisdiction – a risk assessment that can support the storage location or storage locations.

Evidence to support a DARS application

For applications that include the use of cloud services, the following documentation should be provided to support the application:

  1. The type of cloud service(s) that you are using to confirm that you have considered the risks associated with each service. Examples of cloud services include cloud storage, Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
  2. A completed Health and social care data risk model, to confirm that the data class has been assessed.
  3. A cloud risk assessment to confirm that an appropriate risk assessment has been undertaken and that the applicant has considered all risks associated with the use of cloud.

General guidance

Data on the move

Many data security breaches arise from the theft or loss of laptops, mobile phones or USBs. The same level of security should, therefore, be applied to devices being used away from the office as those used in the office.

Personally identifiable, sensitive and confidential data must not be stored on mobile devices unless by exceptional circumstance and has been authorised by your organisation with a business case to do so. In any event, any data held on a mobile device must be secured by using data encryption (minimum AES-256) so that it cannot be accessed by unauthorised persons and must only be held temporarily on the device. We would advocate the implementation of remote wiping technologies.

You should also consider the security of data if being sent by email or post.


To ensure data can only be accessed by authorised users, encryption should be implemented. As a minimum, all files and disks must be encrypted using the ‘AES-256’ standard. Further information regarding Data Security is available from the NCSC website.

Passwords should be required to access the data, a strong password would typically include a mix of upper- and lower-case characters, numbers as well as special characters. Guidance regarding what makes a good password

If you have an approved business case to transfer personal data to mobile devices, this must be done on a temporary basis and the data removed when no longer required. It is preferable to use corporate managed mobile devices that can be remotely erased or disabled. 

Security software

All devices on your corporate network should be frequently identified then scanned for software imperfections (known as vulnerabilities) that could be exploited by attackers to access systems or data. This is known as vulnerability scanning. A process called patching aims to resolve these vulnerabilities once they are discovered.

Penetration testing can verify that the patches are effective in stopping attackers, devices not meeting the required standards should be temporarily removed from your network (‘quarantined’) until their issues are resolved. 

It is also important to regularly check system or control logs or for any important messages, often these can all be fed into a central reporting system (known as a ‘SIEM’). This system allows organisations to have an overall view of their corporate security position. 

Review, update, mitigate

Make sure you're correctly using your security systems and that people can spot when there is a problem. Make sure users and/or employees are aware of their roles and responsibilities and clear when action needs to be taken. You should also put in place plans for a data breach.

To help make sure you're using your security correctly, you should:

  • review what personally identifiable data or patient identifiable data you currently have and what protection you have in place
  • make sure you are compliant with any industry guidance and legal requirements
  • document the controls you have in place and identify where you need to make improvements
  • (once any improvements are in place) continue to monitor the controls and update them where necessary
  • consider the risks for each type of personal data you hold and how you would manage a data breach, so you can reduce the impact
  • have an acceptable-use policy and training materials in place for staff so they know their data protection and data handling responsibilities - this should also cover for non-personal data handling where the data protection act does not apply
  • get a security expert to review your systems so that they can highlight where your security vulnerabilities are and how best to address them
  • make regular encrypted back-ups, keep them secure and delete them properly when no longer required, in line with your disposals policy

Third parties

Outsourced IT systems should conform to the same levels of security as in-house ones. All contracts must be made in writing, comply with all relevant legislation, and require the supplier to act only on your instructions. 

Unless by specific agreement, data and processes must kept inside the United Kingdom. This covers all aspects including storage, administration, processing, as well as backup.

Suppliers should provide up-to-date copies of security assessments covering their systems. These assessments must have set review dates and address any vulnerabilities found. 

There must be clear process in place for the secure deletion of NHS data when it is no-longer required. The DARS Data Destruction Form should be used to provide certification of destruction.

Last edited: 2 May 2023 4:08 pm