United States: Privacy & Information Security Law Blog: UK ICO Fines Equifax For 2017 Breach

Recently, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office ("ICO") fined credit rating agency Equifax £500,000 for failing to protect the personal data of up to 15 million UK individuals. The data was compromised during a cyber attack that occurred between May 13 and July 30, 2017, which affected 146 million customers globally. Although Equifax's systems in the U.S. were targeted, the ICO found the credit agency’s UK arm, Equifax Ltd, failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that its parent firm, which processed this data on its behalf, had protected the information. The ICO investigation uncovered a number of serious contraventions of the UK Data Protection Act 1998 (the "DPA"), resulting in the ICO imposing on Equifax Ltd the maximum fine available.

The compromised UK data was controlled by Equifax Ltd and was processed by Equifax Ltd's parent company and data processor, Equifax Inc. The breach affected Equifax's Identity Verifer ("EIV") dataset, which related to the EIV product, and its GCS dataset. The compromised data included names, telephone numbers, driver's licence numbers, financial details, dates of birth, security questions and answers (in plain text), passwords (in plain text) and credit card numbers (obscured). The ICO investigation found that there had been breaches of five of the eight data protection principles of the DPA. In particular, the ICO commented in detail on Equifax's breaches of the fifth and seventh principles and noted the following:

  • Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes (Fifth Principle):
    • In 2016, Equifax Ltd moved the EIV product from the U.S. to be hosted in the UK. Once the EIV product had been migrated to the UK, it was no longer necessary to keep any of the EIV dataset, in particular the compromised UK data, on Equifax Inc.'s systems. The EIV dataset, however, was not deleted from Equifax's U.S. systems and was subsequently compromised.
    • With respect to the GCS datasets stored on the U.S. system, Equifax Ltd was not sufficiently aware of the purpose(s) for which it was being processed until after the breach. In the absence of a lawful basis for processing (in breach of the First Principle of the DPA), the personal data should have been deleted. The data was not deleted and Equifax Ltd failed to follow-up or check that all UK data had been removed from Equifax's U.S. systems.
  • Appropriate technical and organizational measures shall be taken against unauthorized or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data (Seventh Principle):

    • Equifax Ltd failed to undertake an adequate risk assessment of the security arrangements that Equifax Inc. had in place, prior to transferring data to Equifax Inc. or following the transfer.
    • Equifax Ltd and Equifax Inc. had various data processing agreements in place, however, these agreements failed to (1) provide appropriate safeguards (not limited to security requirements), and (2) properly incorporate the EU Standard Contractual Clauses (in breach of the Eighth Principle of the DPA).
    • Equifax Ltd had a clear contractual right to audit Equifax Inc.'s compliance with its obligations under the aforementioned data processing agreements. Despite this right, Equifax Ltd failed to exercise it to check Equifax Inc.'s compliance with its obligations.
    • Communication procedures between Equifax Ltd and Equifax Inc. were deemed inadequate. In particular, this was highlighted by the delay of over one month between Equifax Inc. becoming aware of the breach and Equifax Ltd being informed of it.
    • Equifax Ltd failed to ensure adequate security measures were in place or notice that Equifax Inc. had failed to take such measures, including:

      • failing to adequately encrypt personal data or protect user passwords. The ICO did not accept Equifax Ltd's reasons (i.e., fraud prevention and password analysis) for storing passwords in a plaintext file, particularly as it was a direct breach of Equifax Ltd's own Cryptology Standards, and the stated aims could be achieved by other more secure means;
      • failing to address known IT vulnerabilities, including those identified and reported to senior employees. In particular, Equifax had been warned about a critical vulnerability in its systems by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March 2017. This vulnerability was given a score of 10.0 on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System ("CVSS"). A CVSS score of 10.0 is the highest score, indicating a critical vulnerability that requires immediate attention. Equifax Inc. failed to patch all vulnerable systems and this vulnerability in its consumer-facing disputes portal was exploited by the cyber attack; and
      • not having fully up-to-date software, failing to undertake sufficient and regular system scans, and failing to ensure appropriate network segregation (some UK data was stored together with U.S. data, making it difficult to differentiate).

Since the breach occurred prior to May 25, 2018, it was dealt with in accordance the Act. While the Equifax fine represents the maximum available under the Act, the aggravating factors identified by the ICO including the number of affected data subjects, the type of data at risk, and the multiple, systematic and serious inadequacies, it is likely that this fine would have been considerably more had the EU General Data Protection Regulation been in force when the breach occurred.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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