A million data breaches?

Is it realistic for the ICO to expect all SMEs to encrypt hardware? And if those SMEs don’t, is it realistic to expect the ICO to enforce against what must be mass non-compliance?

Accurate figures for annual thefts and losses of laptops in the UK are not easy to come by – perhaps the most commonly-cited figure is the estimated 1 million from Sony’s Vaio Business Report 2013. On any analysis, though, it’s a relatively common occurrence.

A large proportion of these will be laptops containing personal data of people other than the owner of the device. And in many cases the device, or part of it, will be used for business purposes, often by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Personal data processed solely for domestic purposes is outwith the obligations of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), but any personal data processed for business purposes is caught by the Act, and the person or business processing that data is likely to be a data controller.

As data controller, they will have an obligation inter alia to take “Appropriate technical and organisational measures …against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data” (Principle 7 of Schedule One, DPA). A serious contravention of this obligation, of a sort likely to cause serious damage or serious distress, can lead to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) serving the data controller with a Monetary Penalty Notice (MPN), under section 55A, to a maximum of £500,000.

And so it was this week that the ICO served Jala Transport Ltd, an oddly-named loans company, with an MPN of £5000 after

a hard drive containing financial details relating to all of the sole proprietor’s approximately 250 customers…[was stolen] from the business owner’s car while it was stationary at a set of traffic lights in London

The hard drive was in a case, with documents and some cash, and has still not been recovered.

Despite one’s possible distaste for the nature of the business involved (it may be difficult to muster much sympathy for a loans company), this case raises some interesting points, specifically for small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) but also in general.

The MPN itself reveals that the business did not have a backup of the hard drive. This is a ridiculous oversight, when secure storage is simple, and cheap. But

it was taken home at the end of each working day for business continuity purposes and to reduce the risk of damage or theft

However, by not

closing the car window and placing the briefcase in the boot of his car or out of sight

this unsuccessful but probably well-meaning attempt at data security -and a business continuity plan – became an aggravating factor.

However, what really did for the proprietor was, “crucially”, that although the laptop was password-protected, it was not encrypted, and this led the ICO to repeat previous warnings about the need for encryption in these circumstances

We have continued to warn organisations of all sizes that they must encrypt any personal data stored on portable devices, where the loss of the information could cause clear damage and distress to the customers affected…if the hard drive had been encrypted the business owner would not have left all of their customers open to the threat of identity theft and would not be facing a £5,000 penalty following a serious breach of the Data Protection Act

Several questions are raised by this case, and this approach by the ICO. Firstly, encryption, for individual devices, is not necessarily straight-forward, and carries its own risks. This is not to say that attempts should not be made at either full disk encryption or file/folder encryption, but not all SMEs necessarily have the time or expertise to explore this effectively. Secondly, one notes that one of the reasons the MPN was imposed was because the ICO felt that the serious contravention of the DPA was of a sort likely to lead to serious damage in the form of identity theft. It was a very similar argument that the Information Tribunal recently refused to accept as being a likely consequence of another serious contravention, when it upheld Scottish Borders Council’s recent MPN appeal. £5000 is not a huge amount, and the time and expense of pursuing an appeal might be too much, but it will be interesting to see if one is lodged.

Finally – following on from the point that encryption of single standalone devices isn’t necessarily straightforward – one has to wonder how many of those estimated one million lost and stolen laptops were encrypted, and, of those that weren’t, how many contained personal data which required the relevant data controller to observe the security obligations of the DPA. Jala Transport appears to have taken the admirable, but perhaps ill-conceived, decision to report the theft to the ICO itself (and may now be regretting that decision).

If all the data controllers of those thousands and thousands of laptops lost or stolen annually reported the loss to the ICO, how many would have to own up to lack of encryption, and be liable to a similar or possibly larger MPN? And could the ICO possibly cope with the workload?

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Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice, Uncategorized

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