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28 October 2020

ICO issues British Airways with a ground-breaking fine

On 16 October 2020, The Information Commissioner’s Office (the “ICO”) imposed a monetary penalty notice fining British Airways Plc (“BA”) £20million for breaching its data security obligations under the General Data Protection Regulation (the “GDPR”) when they faced a cyber-attack in 2018. This is the ICO’s largest fine to date and the amount imposed was a significant reduction on the £183.39 million the ICO announced that it intended to fine BA back in July 2019.

Details of the cyber attack

The attacker is believed to have accessed the personal data of over 400,000 BA customers and staff members worldwide. Information obtained includes names, addresses, payment card numbers and CVV numbers; although it is thought only around 100,000 customers had their payment information accessed. The attack went undetected for over 2 months spanning from 22 June to 5 September 2018.

Usernames and passwords of BA employee accounts, as well as usernames and PINs of up to 600 BA Executive Club accounts, were also potentially accessed.

Failure to prevent the attack

The ICO listed a number of factors in its penalty notice report that BA could have used to mitigate the risk of the attacker being able to access personal data through the BA network. These include:

  • limiting access to applications, data and tools to only those which are required to fulfil a user’s role;
  • undertaking rigorous testing, in the form of simulating a cyber-attack, on the business’ systems; and
  • protecting employee and third party accounts with multi-factor authentication.

It was noted that these additional measures would not have entailed excessive costs or technical barriers to BA, with some of these measures already available through the Microsoft Operating System that they used.

Another consequential factor taken into account by the ICO was that on 22 June 2018 BA did not detect the attack themselves but were informed by a third party more than two months after, on 5 September 2018. The ICO considered this to be a severe failing because it is not clear whether or when BA would have identified the attack themselves. Had it not been for this third party the financial harm could have been even more widespread.

Significance

The fine payable by BA is the largest imposed to date by the ICO for a breach of the GDPR. Although £20million appears to be a narrow escape (compared to the £183million originally suggested by the ICO), Article 83 of the GDPR does require the ICO to ensure any fine imposed is "effective, proportionate and dissuasive". The ICO considered BA’s prompt action that was taken to mitigate the risk of harm suffered (once aware of the attack), as well as the economic impact of COVID-19 on the business – and with all considerations taken into account, imposed a greatly reduced (albeit still eye-watering) fine.

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