Analysis prompted by Morrisons “data breach”

Yesterday’s data breach involving Morrisons supermarket and its staff payroll illustrates how difficult it is properly to handle such incidents, and perhaps provides some learning points for the future. But also raises issues about what is a “data breach

What do we mean by “data breach”, “personal data breach”, “data security breach” etc?

The draft European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which continues to slouch its way towards implementation, says in its current form that

In the case of a personal data breach, the controller shall without undue delay notify the personal data breach to the supervisory authority [and]

When the personal data breach is likely to adversely affect the protection of the personal data, the privacy, the rights or the legitimate interests of the data subject, the controller shall, after the notification referred to in Article 31, communicate the personal data breach to the data subject without undue delay

“without undue delay” is, by virtue of (current) recital 67, said to be “not later than 72 hours” (in the original draft it was “where feasible, within 24 hours”). However “personal data breach” is not defined – it is suggested rather that the proposed European Data Protection Board will set guidelines etc for determining what a “breach” is.What is not clear to me is whether a “breach” is to be construed as “a breach of the data controller’s legal obligations under this Regulation”, or, more generally, “a breach of data security”. Certainly under the current domestic scheme there is, I would argue, confusion about this. A “breach of data security” is not necessarily equivalent to a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). To give a ludicrous example: if a gunman holds a person hostage, and demands that they unencrypt swathes of personal data from a computer system and give it to them, then it is hard to see that the data controller has breached the DPA, which requires only that “appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data” (which clearly cannot be construed as an unlimited obligation) but there has most certainly been a breach of data security.

It is unclear whether Morrisons chose to inform the Information Commissioner (ICO) about their incident, but the wording they’ve used to describe it suggests they are seeing this not as a breach of their obligations under the DPA, but as a potentially criminal act of which they were the victim: on their Facebook page they describe it as an “illegal theft of data” and that they are liaising with “the police and highest level of cyber crime authorities” (a doughnut to anyone who can explain to me what the latter is, by the way). If an offence has been committed under section 55 of the DPA (or possibly under the Computer Misuse Act 1990) there is a possible argument that the data controller is not at fault (although sometimes the two can go together – as I discuss in a recent post). Morrisons make no mention of the ICO, although I have no doubt that they (ICO) will now be aware and making enquiries. And, if Morrisons’ initial assessment was that they hadn’t breached the DPA (i.e. that they had taken the appropriate technical and organisational measures to mean they were not in breach of the seventh DPA principle), they might quite understandably argue that there was no need to inform the ICO, who, after all, regulates only compliance with the DPA and not broader issues around security breaches. There was certainly no legal obligation under current law for Morrisons to self-notify. Plenty of data controllers do, often ones in the public sector (the NHS Information Governance toolkit even automatically delivers a message to the ICO if an NHS data controller records a qualifying incident) but even the ICO’s guidance is unclear as to the circumstances which would trigger the need to self-notify. Their guidance is called “Notification of data security breaches to the ICO” but in the overview at the very start of that guidance it says

Report serious breaches of the seventh principle
Ultimately I see it boiling down to two interpretations: report a data security breach so that the ICO can assess whether it is a serious breach of the seventh principle, or, assess the data security breach yourself, and if you assess it as a serious breach of the seventh principle, report that to the ICO. This is not obligatory under the current domestic data protection law, so to an extent it is an arid discussion, but if the obligation to notify does become obligatory under the GDPR it will become much more important.
There is one domestic law under which it is obligatory to report a “personal data breach”. The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 amended by 2011 Regulations, require a provider of a public electronic communications service to notify the ICO of
a breach of security leading to the accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed in connection with the provision of a public electronic communications service
This notably does not specify that the breach has to constitute a breach of the service provider’s DPA obligations, and one wonders if this is the sort of thing that will be specified as a breach once the GDPR is implemented.
Morrisons’ notification to data subjects

The people whose data was apparently compromised in the Morrisons “breach” were its staff – it was payroll information which was allegedly stolen and misused. It appears that Morrisons emailed those staff with internal email addresses (how many checkout staff and shelf-stackers have one of those?) and then, as any modern, forward-thinking organisation might, it posted a message on its Facebook page.However, I really wonder about that as a strategy. The comments on that Facebook page seem to be threatening to turn the incident into a personnel, and public communications disaster, with many people saying they had heard nothing until they read the message. Moreover, one wonders to what extent some staff might have been misled, or have misled themselves, into assuming that the comments they were posting were on some closed forum or network. As was suggested to me on twitter yesterday, some of the comments look to be career-limiting ones, but by engaging on its social media platform, might Morrisons be seen to have encouraged that sort of robust response from employees?

Much of this still has to play out – notably whether there was any contravention of the DPA by Morrisons – but, in a week when their financial performance came under close scrutiny, their PR handling of this “data breach” will also be looked at very closely by other data controllers for lessons in case they are ever faced with a similar situation.


Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, employment, Information Commissioner, PECR, social media

4 responses to “Analysis prompted by Morrisons “data breach”

  1. Pingback: Kent Police get £100,000 penalty for poor data security | inforightsandwrongs

  2. Pingback: Kent Police get 100,000 penalty for poor data security … – News4Security

  3. Pingback: Watch out lawyers – the ICO has you in his sights | informationrightsandwrongs

  4. Pingback: Do your research. Properly | informationrightsandwrongs

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