This month the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has issued two fines and one Notice of Intent under GDPR.
The latest fine is three times more than that imposed on Easylife Ltd on 5th October. Yesterday, Interserve Group Ltd was fined £4.4 million for failing to keep personal information of its staff secure.
The ICO found that the Berkshire based construction company failed to put appropriate security measures in place to prevent a cyber-attack, which enabled hackers to access the personal data of up to 113,000 employees through a phishing email. The compromised data included personal information such as contact details, national insurance numbers, and bank account details, as well as special category data including ethnic origin, religion, details of any disabilities, sexual orientation, and health information.
The Phishing Email
In March 2020, an Interserve employee forwarded a phishing email, which was not quarantined or blocked by Interserve’s IT system, to another employee who opened it and downloaded its content. This resulted in the installation of malware onto the employee’s workstation.
The company’s anti-virus quarantined the malware and sent an alert, but Interserve failed to thoroughly investigate the suspicious activity. If they had done so, Interserve would have found that the attacker still had access to the company’s systems.
The attacker subsequently compromised 283 systems and 16 accounts, as well as uninstalling the company’s anti-virus solution. Personal data of up to 113,000 current and former employees was encrypted and rendered unavailable.
The ICO investigation found that Interserve failed to follow-up on the original alert of a suspicious activity, used outdated software systems and protocols, and had a lack of adequate staff training and insufficient risk assessments, which ultimately left them vulnerable to a cyber-attack. Consequently, Interserve had breached Article 5 and Article 32 of GDPR by failing to put appropriate technical and organisational measures in place to prevent the unauthorised access of people’s information.
Notice of Intent
Interestingly in this case the Notice of Intent (the pre cursor to the fine) was for also for £4.4million i.e. no reductions were made by the ICO despite Interserve’s representations. Compare this to the ICO’s treatment of two much bigger companies who also suffered cyber security breaches. In July 2018, British Airways was issued with a Notice of Intent in the sum of £183 Million but the actual fine was reduced to £20 million in July 2020. In November 2020 Marriott International Inc was fined £18.4 million, much lower than the £99 million set out in the original notice.
The Information Commissioner, John Edwards, has warned that companies are leaving themselves open to cyber-attack by ignoring crucial measures like updating software and training staff:
“The biggest cyber risk businesses face is not from hackers outside of their company, but from complacency within their company. If your business doesn’t regularly monitor for suspicious activity in its systems and fails to act on warnings, or doesn’t update software and fails to provide training to staff, you can expect a similar fine from my office.
Leaving the door open to cyber attackers is never acceptable, especially when dealing with people’s most sensitive information. This data breach had the potential to cause real harm to Interserve’s staff, as it left them vulnerable to the possibility of identity theft and financial fraud.”
We have been here before. On 10th March the ICO fined Tuckers Solicitors LLP £98,000 following a ransomware attack on the firm’s IT systems in August 2020. The attacker had encrypted 972,191 files, of which 24,712 related to court bundles. 60 of those were exfiltrated by the attacker and released on the dark web.
Organisations need to strengthen their defences and have plans in place; not just to prevent a cyber-attack but what to do when it does takes place. Here are our top tips:
- Conduct a cyber security risk assessment and consider an external accreditation through Cyber Essentials.
- Ensure your employees know the risks of malware/ransomware and follows good security practice. At the time of the cyber-attack, one of the two Interserve employees who received the phishing email had not undertaken data protection training. (Our GDPR Essentials e-learning solution is a very cost effective e learning solution which contains a specific module on keeping data safe.)
- Have plans in place for a cyber security breach. See our Managing Personal Data Breaches workshop.
- Earlier in the year, the ICO worked with NCSC to remind organisations not to pay a ransom in case of a cyber-attack, as it does not reduce the risk to individuals and is not considered as a reasonable step to safeguard data. For more information, take a look at the ICO ransomware guidance or visit the NCSC website to learn about mitigating a ransomware threat via their business toolkit.
This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop.
Are you an experienced GDPR Practitioner wanting to take your skills to the next level? Our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice starts on 21st November.