British Airways data breach – what can we learn?

October 2020

We’ve finally heard the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined British Airways £20 million for failing to protect personal and credit card data in their 2018 data breach. A breach which affected more than 400,000 BA customers and staff.

A final decision on this has been expected for some time, we just didn’t know what the figure would be until now. The amount is a fraction of the £183 million initially announced in the ICO’s notice of intention to fine. After considering BA’s representations and factoring in the economic impacts of COVID-19 it has been significantly reduced. But it’s still an eye-watering sum, in fact, the largest fine issued by the ICO.

You can read the Information Commissioner’s penalty notice if you wish. But what are the key lessons other businesses can learn from BA’s painful experience?

Information security must be taken seriously at Board level

Modern businesses rely on data more and more to provide quality services for customers and to create competitive advantage.  However, the risks to personal data are numerous, varied and ever-changing. A data breach can massively harm a business’s reputation with its customers, staff and with the world at large.

It’s often said that with power comes responsibility, so businesses need to recognise their roles as guardian and protector of the personal data of their customers and employees. We have to deliver on the promises we make, for example, in our privacy notices. Any steps your business can take to properly protect personal data and demonstrate to staff and the public how seriously you take data protection will help protect them from harm and also may help you to stand out from competitors in these tough times.

Boards need to show leadership by insisting on a strong and vigilant information security regime. I guess that means they need to be prepared to fund it too! It also means asking tough questions about the levels of data protection in place across the organisation.

Rachel Aldighieri, MD of the Data & Marketing Association (DMA), believes this is a wake up call;

“Brexit and coronavirus have put businesses under immense financial strain. A fine of this magnitude will certainly get the attention of Board members of organisations across the UK. They will certainly not want to risk receiving similar disciplinary action from the ICO. This is the largest fine issued by the ICO to date under the new GDPR laws, highlighting the importance all businesses should place on the security of customers’ data and the need to build in safeguards to protect it.

“Data is a fundamental part of the digital economy, so maintaining its security must be a business imperative. Trust in how brands collect, store and use data is essential to the relationship between businesses and their customers. This message should resonate with businesses now more than ever.”

Security measures must not only be ‘adequate’ but also checked and verified

The ICO said there were numerous measures BA could have used to mitigate or prevent the risk of an attacker accessing their network.

Martin Turner, Managing Director at cybersecurity specialists Full Frame Technology, believes BA missed the basics:

“As with so many serious data breaches, this one was caused by a failure to adopt the most basic security measures, including limiting access to applications, rigorous cybersecurity testing, and protecting accounts with multi-factor authentication.

Login credentials for a domain administrator account were stored in plain text. Software code wasn’t reviewed effectively. These are issues that a cybersecurity audit should have revealed, and BA has yet to explain why this didn’t happen.”

The ICO has (finally) shown us it has teeth!

Could this be a turning point? It’s been a long time coming and many expected it to happen much sooner. The ICO have finally issued a BIG fine more in keeping with the expectations most of us had when GDPR came into force.

Nevertheless, you might feel the ICO has shown a measure of pragmatism, reducing the fine down so much from the original £183m. But it’s not great timing for any business to suffer a body blow like this.

It will be interesting to see what figure the ICO finally decide to fine Marriott International for their Starwood data breach, which first came to our attention around the same time as BA. The ICO’s original ‘intention to fine’ for Marriott was £99 million.

Should we think again about data breach insurance?

You might be thinking afresh about breach insurance. We’d suggest you shop around and pay attention to the fine print, as data breach insurance policies can vary more than you might imagine.

Don’t just look at the price as no two policies are the same and there is little consistency in the way policies are worded. The levels of cover and features on offer can vary significantly. Keep an eye out for exclusions!

One key differentiator you may wish to delve into is the level of support your insurer will provide in the event of a breach or a cyber attack. Do they have a team of specialists in place who will advise and help you to triage a live situation? This is one area where you might get just what you pay for.

This fine was long anticipated and the pandemic has definitely played its part in reducing the final amount. The travel sector has been badly impacted by COVID and £20 million will hit BA hard. BA may decide to appeal against it. It goes to show how important it is to have robust data protection and security measures in place.