Category: Data Breach

The rising threat of Ransomware

28. June 2021

Ransomware attacks are on a steep rise as the global pandemic continues. According to the cybersecurity firm SonicWall, there were more than 304 million attempted ransomware attacks tracked by them in 2020, which was a 62 percent increase over 2019. During the first five months of 2021, the firm detected another 116 percent increase in ransomware attempts compared to the same period in 2020. Another cybersecurity firm called Cybereason found in a recent study interviewing nearly 1,300 security professionals from all around the world that more than half of organisations have been the victim of a ransomware attack, and that 80 percent of businesses that decided to pay a ransom fee suffered a second ransomware attack, often times by the same cybercriminals.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software, which encrypts files, databases, or applications on a computer or network and perpetually holds them hostage or even threatens to publish data until the owner pays the attacker the requested fee. Captivated data may include Personal Data, business data and intellectual property. While Phishing attacks are the most common gateway for ransomware, there are also highly targeted attacks on financially strong companies and institutions (“Big game hunting”).

Alluding to the industry term Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), a new unlawful industry sub-branch has emerged in recent years, which according to security experts lowered the entrance barriers to this industry immensely: Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS). With RaaS, a typical monthly subscription could cost around 50 US-Dollars and the purchaser receives the ransomware code and decryption key. Sophisticated RaaS offerings even include customer service and dashboards that allow hackers to track the status of infections and the status of ransomware payments. Thus, cybercriminals do not necessarily have to have the technical skills themselves to create corresponding malware.

Experts point to various factors that are contributing to the recent increase in Ransomeware attacks. One factor is a consequence of the pandemic: the worldwide trend to work from home. Many companies and institutions were abruptly forced to introduce remote working and let employees use their own private equipment. Furthermore, many companies were not prepared to face the rising threats with respect to their cybersecurity management. Another reported factor has been the latest increase in value of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin which is the preferred currency by criminals for ransom payments.

Successful Ransomware attacks can lead to personal data breaches pursuant to Art. 4 No. 12 GDPR and can also lead to the subsequent obligation to report the data breach to the supervisory authorities (Art. 33 GDPR) and to the data subjects (Art. 34 GDPR) for the affected company. Businesses are called to implement appropriate technical and organisational measures based on the risk-based approach, Art. 32 GDPR.

Earlier this month, the Danish Data Protection Authority provided companies with practical guidance on how to mitigate the risk of ransomware attacks. Measures to ensure the ongoing confidentiality, integrity, availability and resilience of processing systems when faced with ransomware may include providing regular trainings for employees, having a high level of technical protection of systems and networks in place, patching programs in a timely manner, and storing backups in an environment other than the normal network.

Officers’ data leaked in Poland

28. May 2021

The Polish Personal Data Protection Office (UODO) has received a notification of a data breach involving the disclosure of personal data of uniformed services officers. The case is currently being analyzed and supplemented with additional materials and information that shall clarify all its circumstances.

The data controller also notified other authorities about the incident. Among these are the police, the Governmental Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT NASK) and the National Public Prosecutor’s Office. The controller informed UODO that the individuals whose data was subject to the breach would be notified individually through the officers’ home units. Nevertheless, many aspects are still unclear. Therefore, in the course of the investigation, UODO sent a letter to the data controller asking for explanations related to the data breach. Any further action will depend on the information provided by the data controller.

As a result of this situation, UODO emphasises that there is a risk associated with the possibility of unauthorized use of the officers’ personal data, which may involve tangible harm to them. Such activity may include (identity) fraud and invasion of privacy.

In this respect, UODO reminds what actions should be taken to minimize the negative consequences of such a breach. First of all, one should be very careful when providing data via the Internet. Furthermore, it is important to carefully analyse all content included e.g. in SMS messages or e-mails in order to avoid phishing attacks in particular, the aim of which is to obtain additional personal data. In this connection, materials were provided by UODO with further tips on how to reduce the risk of identity theft.

Irish DPC launches investigation into Facebook data leak

26. April 2021

On April 14th, 2021, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) announced it launched an investigation into Facebook’s data leak reported earlier this month (please see our blog post here). The inquiry was initiated on the Irish DPC’s own volition according to section 110 of the Irish Data Protection Act. It comes after a dataset of 533 million Facebook users worldwide was made available on the internet.

The Irish DPC indicated in a statement that, “having considered the information provided by Facebook Ireland regarding this matter to date, the DPC is of the opinion that one or more provisions of the GDPR and/or the Data Protection Act 2018 may have been, and/or are being, infringed in relation to Facebook Users’ personal data”. The Irish DPC further stated that they had engaged with Facebook Ireland in relation to this reported issue, raising queries in relation to GDPR compliance, to which Facebook Ireland furnished a number of responses.

The launch of an investigation by the Irish authorities is significant due to the fact that Ireland remains home to Facebook’s European headquarters. This means the Irish DPC would act as the lead regulator within the European Union on all matters related to it. However, Ireland’s data watchdog has faced criticism from privacy advocates for being too slow with its GDPR investigations into large tech companies. In fact, the inquiry comes after the European Commission intervened to apply pressure on Ireland’s data protection commissioner.

Facebook’s statement on the inquiry has been shared through multiple media, and it has announced that Facebook is “cooperating fully with the DPC in its enquiry, which relates to features that make it easier for people to find and connect with friends on our services. These features are common to many apps and we look forward to explaining them and the protections we have put in place.”

Facebook data leak affects more than 500 million users

7. April 2021

Confidential data of 533 million Facebook users has surfaced in a forum for cybercriminals. A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that the data came from a leak in 2019.

The leaked data includes Facebook usernames and full name, date of birth, phone number, location and biographical information, and in some cases, the email address of the affected users. Business Insider has verified the leaked data through random sampling. Even though some of the data may be outdated, the leak poses risks if, for example, email addresses or phone numbers are used for hacking. The leak was made public by the IT security firm Hudson Rock. Their employees noticed that the data sets were offered by a bot for money in a hacking forum. The data set was then offered publicly for free and thus made accessible to everyone.

The US magazine Wired points out that Facebook is doing more to confuse than to help clarify. First, Facebook referred to an earlier security vulnerability in 2019, which we already reported. This vulnerability was patched in August last year. Later, a blog post from a Facebook product manager confirmed that it was a major security breach. However, the data had not been accessed through hacking, but rather the exploitation of a legitimate Facebook feature. In addition, the affected data was so old that GDPR and U.S. privacy laws did not apply, he said. In the summer of 2019, Facebook reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a $5 billion fine for all data breaches before June 12, 2019. According to Wired, the current database is not congruent with the one at issue at the time, as the most recent Facebook ID in it is from late May 2019.

Users can check whether they are affected by the data leak via the website HaveIBeenPwned.

Ikea France on trial for spying on staff and customers

Ikea’s French subsidiary and several of its former executives stood trial on Monday, March 22nd, 2021, after being sued by former employees on charges of violating privacy rights by surveilling the plaintiffs, job applicants and customers.

Trade unions reported the furniture and household goods company to French authorities in 2012, accusing it of fraudulently collecting personal data and disclosing it without authorization. The subsequent criminal investigation uncovered an extensive espionage system. According to French prosecutors, the company hired a surveillance company, private investigators and even a former military operative to illegally obtain confidential information about its existing and prospective employees as well as customers. The files received contained, inter alia, criminal records and bank statements. The system has been used for years, possibly even over a decade, to identify individuals who were particularly suspicious or working against the company.

After the case caused outrage in 2012, Ikea’s main parent company fired several executives at the French branch, including the former general manager. But the extensive activity in France has again raised questions about data breaches by the company.

At Monday’s trial an employee accused the company of abuse since it had wrongly suspected him of being a bank robber because its investigative system had found prior convictions of a bank robber with the same name. Others claimed the retailer had browsed through employees’ criminal records and used unauthorized data to reveal those driving expensive cars despite low incomes or unemployment benefits. Even an assistant director who had taken a year of medical leave to recover from hepatitis C was monitored to investigate whether she had faked the severity of her illness. Illicit background checks on hundreds of job applicants were also conducted. Moreover, the system was used to track down customers seeking refunds for mismanaged orders.

One of the defendants, the former head of Ikea France’s risk management department, has testified at the hearing that EUR 530.000 to 630.000 a year had been earmarked for such investigations. The former CEOs and Chief Financial Officer as well as store managers are also on trial. In addition, four police officers are accused of handing over confidential information from police files.

Ikea France said in a statement that it takes the protection of its employees’ and customers’ data very seriously. The company added that it adopted compliance and training procedures to prevent illegal activity and changed internal policies after the criminal investigation had been initiated. But at Monday’s hearing, Ikea France’s lawyers denied a system-wide surveillance. The case was also called “a fairy tale” invented by trade union activists.

The deputy prosecutor claimed, Ikea France had illegally monitored at least 400 people and used the information to its advantage. She is asking for a fine of EUR 2.000.000 against the company, prison sentences of at least one year for two former CEOs and a private investigator, as well as fines for some store managers and police officers. A total of 15 people have been charged. The company also faces potential claims for damages from civil lawsuits filed by unions and several employees.

The trial ended on April 2nd. A verdict by a panel of judges is scheduled for June 15th.

Microsoft Exchange Target of Hacks

29. March 2021

Microsoft’s Exchange Servers are exposed to an ever-increasing number of attacks. This is the second major cyberattack on Microsoft in recent months, following the so-called SolarWinds hack (please see our blog post). The new attacks are based on vulnerabilities that have been in the code for some time but have only recently been discovered.

In a blog post published on March 2nd, 2021, Microsoft explains the hack and a total of four found vulnerabilities. The first vulnerability allows attackers to gain access to a Microsoft Exchange Server, the second vulnerability allows them to execute their code on the system, and the third and fourth vulnerabilities allow the hacker write access to arbitrary files on the server. Microsoft Exchange Server versions 2019, 2016, 2013 and 2010 are affected, and Microsoft released a security update for all of them on March 2nd, even though support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 ended in October 2020.

Reportedly, Microsoft was informed about the vulnerability in January. Since then, a growing number of hacker groups have started to use the exploit. The initial campaign is attributed to HAFNIUM, a group believed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China. According to Microsoft, the vulnerabilities have been in the code for many years without being discovered. Only recently has Microsoft become aware of these vulnerabilities and begun working on them. Microsoft shared information on the vulnerability through the Microsoft Active Protections Program (Mapp), where they share information with a group of 80 security companies. The attacks began shortly after Microsoft began working to resolve the vulnerabilities. There are many similarities between the code Microsoft shared through Mapp and the code the attackers are using.

In an article about a recently published One-Click Exchange On-premises Mitigation Tool (EOMT), Microsoft developers describe how admins can secure Exchange servers against the current attacks within a very short amount of time. The tool only serves as an initial protective measure. For comprehensive protection, available security updates must be installed. In addition, it must be checked whether the hackers have already exploited existing gaps to leave behind backdoors and malware. This is because the updates close the gaps, but do not eliminate an infection that has already occurred. Hackers often do not use gaps immediately for an attack, but to gain access later, for example for large-scale blackmail.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organizations affected by an attack on personal data must, in certain circumstances, report such an incident to the relevant supervisory authority and possibly to the affected individuals. Even after a successful patch, it should be kept in mind that affected organizations were vulnerable in the meantime. Pursuant to Art. 33 of the GDPR, system compromises that may affect personal data and result in a risk to data subjects must be notified to the competent supervisory authority. For such a notification, the time of discovery of the security breach, the origin of the security breach, the possible scope of the personal data affected, and the first measures taken must be documented.

Data Breach made 136,000 COVID-19 test results publicly accessible

18. March 2021

Personal health data are considered a special category of personal data under Art. 9 of the GDPR and are therefore given special protections. A group of IT experts, including members of the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC), has now revealed security gaps in the software for test centres by which more than 136,000 COVID-19 test results of more than 80,000 data subjects have apparently been unprotected on the internet for weeks.

The IT-Security experts’ findings concern the software “SafePlay” of the Austrian company Medicus AI. Many test centres use this software to allocate appointments and to make test results digitally available to those tested. In fact, more than 100 test centres and mobile test teams in Germany and Austria are affected by the recent data breach. These include public facilities in Munich, Berlin, Mannheim as well as fixed and temporary testing stations in companies, schools and daycare centres.

In order to view the test results unlawfully, one only needed to create an account for a COVID-19 test. The URL for the test result contained the number of the test. If this number was simply counted up or down, the “test certificates” of other people became freely accessible. In addition to the test result, the test certificate also contained the name, date of birth, private address, nationality and ID number of the person concerned.

It remains unresolved whether the vulnerabilities have been exploited prior to the discovery by the CCC. The CCC notified both Medius AI and the Data Protection Authorities about the leak which led to a quick response by the company. However, IT experts and Privacy-focused NGOs commented that Medicus AI was irresponsible and grossly negligent with respect to their security measures leading to the potential disclosure of an enormous amount of sensitive personal health data.

Dutch data scandal: illegal trade of COVID-19 patient data

19. February 2021

In recent months, a RTL Nieuws reporter Daniël Verlaan has discovered widespread trade in the personal data of Dutch COVID-19 test subjects. He found ads consisting of photos of computer screens listing data of Dutch citizens. Apparently, the data had been offered for sale on various instant messaging apps such as Telegram, Snapchat and Wickr. The prices ranged from €30 to €50 per person. The data included home addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and BSN identifiers (Dutch social security number).

The personal data were registered in the two main IT systems of the Dutch Municipal Health Service (GGD) – CoronIT, containing details about citizens who took a COVID-19 test, and HPzone Light, a contact-tracing system, which contains the personal data of people infected with the coronavirus.

After becoming aware of the illegal trade, the GGD reported it to the Dutch Data Protection Authority and the police. The cybercrime team of the Midden-Nederland police immediately started an investigation. It showed that at least two GGD employees had maliciously stolen the data, as they had access to the official Dutch government COVID-19 systems and databases. Within 24 hours of the complaint, two men were arrested. Several days later, a third suspect was tracked down as well. The investigation continues, since the extent of the data theft is unclear and whether the suspects in fact managed to sell the data. Therefore, more arrests are certainly not excluded.

Chair of the Dutch Institute for Vulnerability Disclosure, Victor Gevers, told ZDNet in an interview:

Because people are working from home, they can easily take photos of their screens. This is one of the issues when your administrative staff is working from home.

Many people expressed their disapproval of the insufficient security measures concerning the COVID-19 systems. Since the databases include very sensitive data, the government has a duty to protect these properly in order to prevent criminal misuse. People must be able to rely on their personal data being treated confidentially.

In a press release, the Dutch police also raised awareness of the cybercrime risks, like scam or identity fraud. Moreover, they informed about the possibilities of protection against such crimes and the need to report them. This prevents victims and allows the police to immediately track down suspects and stop their criminal practices.

GDPR fines and data breach reports increased in 2020

12. February 2021

In 2020 a total of €158.5 million in fines were imposed, research by DLA Piper shows. This represents a 39% increase compared to the 20 months the GDPR was previously in force since May 25th, 2018.

Since that date, a total of € 272.5 million in fines have been imposed across Europe under the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). Italian authorities imposed a total of € 69.3 million, German authorities € 69.1 million, and French authorities 54.4 million. This calculation does not include two fines against Google LLC and Google Ireland Limited totalling € 100 million  (€ 60million + € 40million) and a fine of € 35 million against Amazon Europe Core issued by the French data protection authority “Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” (“CNIL”) on December 10th, 2020, (please see our respective blog post), as proceedings on these fines are pending before the Conseil d’Etat.

A total of 281,000 data breaches were reported during this period, although the countries that imposed the highest fines were not necessarily those where the most data breaches were reported. While Germany and the UK can be found in the top of both lists, with 77,747 data breaches reported in Germany, 30,536 in the UK and 66,527 in the Netherlands, only 5,389 data breaches were reported in France and only 3,460 in Italy.

Although the biggest imposed fine to date still is a fine of € 50 million issued by CNIL against Google LLC in January 2019 (please see our respective blog post) a number of high-profile fines were imposed in 2020, with 6 of the top 10 all time fines being issued in 2020 and one in 2021.

1. H&M Hennes & Mauritz Online Shop A.B. & Co. KG was fined € 35 million for monitoring several hundred employees (please see our respective blog post).

2. TIM (Italian telecommunications operator) was fined € 27 million for making unwanted promotion calls.

3. British Airways was fined € 22 million for failing to protect personal and financial data of more than 400,000 customers (please see our blog post)

4. Marriott International was fined € 20 million for a data breach affecting up to 383 million customers (please see our respective blog post)

5. Wind Tre S.p.A. was fined € 17 million for unsolicited marketing communications.

A comparison of the highest fines shows that most of them were imposed due to an insufficient legal basis for the processing of personal data (Art. 5 & 6 GDPR) or due to insufficient technical and organizational measures to ensure an appropriate level of security (Art. 32 GDPR).

While the European authorities have shown their willingness to enforce the GDPR rules, they have also shown leniency due to the impact that the COVID 19 pandemic has had on businesses. At least in part due to the impact of the pandemic, the penalties planned by the UK ICO have been softened. A planned fine of €205 million for British Airways was reduced to €22 million and a planned fine of €110 million for Marriott International was reduced to €20 million. GDPR investigations are also often lengthy and contentious, so the increased fines may in part be due to more investigations having had sufficient time to be completed. For example, the dispute over the above fines for British Airways and Marriott International has already started in 2019.

Not only the fines but also the number of data breach notifications increased in 2020. In 2020 121,165 data breaches were reported, an average of 331 notifications per day, compared to 278 per day in 2019. In terms of reported data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, there is a stark contrast between Northern and Southern European countries. In 2020, Denmark recorded 155.6 data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, the Netherlands 150, Ireland 127.8, while Greece, Italy and Croatia reported the lowest number of data breaches per inhabitant.

The trend shows that the GDPR is being taken more and more seriously by companies and authorities, and this trend is likely to continue as authorities become more confident in enforcing the GDPR. Fines are only likely to increase, especially as none of the fines imposed so far even come close to the maximum possible amount of 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. The figures also show that while the laws are in principle the same and are supposed to be applied the same in all EEA countries, nations have different approaches to interpreting and implementing them. In the near future, we can expect to see the first penalties resulting from the GDPR restrictions on data transfers to third countries, especially in the aftermath of the Schrems II ruling on data transfers to the USA.

University fined for omitted notification of a data breach

4. February 2021

The President of the Personal Data Protection Office in Poland (UODO) imposed a fine on the Medical University of Silesia in the amount of PLN 25.000 (approx. EUR 5.600). The university had suffered a data breach of which it should have notified the supervisory authority and the data subjects according to Articles 33, 34 GDPR, but failed to do so.

First indications of the data breach reached UODO in early June 2020. It was related to exams held at the end of May 2020 by videoconference on an e-learning platform. These were also being recorded. Before the exam, students were identified by their IDs or student cards, so a large amount of their personal data was documented on the recordings. After the exam was completed, the recordings were made available on the platform. However, not only the examinees had access to the platform, but also a wider group of people, about which the students had not been informed. In addition, using a direct link, any extern person could access the recordings and therefore the data of the examinees. Many students, fearing that the video would be deleted to cover up the incident, secured the file or took photographs of the computer screens to protect evidence. Eventually, the chancellor (being the decision-making unit) expressed the position that the incident of 200 people viewing the IDs of some 100-150 other people cannot be considered a personal data breach.

The controller, who was requested to clarify the situation by UODO, did not dispute the data breach. In fact, the virtual room of the platform is only available to the exam group and only those people have access to the recordings. The violation occurred because one of the employees did not close access to the virtual room after the exam. Though, the controller stated that no notification was required. In his opinion the risk to the rights or freedoms of the data subjects was low. Moreover, after the incident, the system was modified to prevent students from downloading the exam files. The controller also indicated that he identified the individuals who had done so and informed them about their criminal liability for disseminating the data.

Despite several letters from UODO, the university still omitted to report the data breach and notify the data subjects. Therefore, administrative proceedings were initiated. UODO found that the controller failed to comply with his obligations to notify both the supervisory authority and affected data subjects as well as improperly assessed the risk involved.

When imposing the fine, the President of UODO took into account the duration of the infringement (several months), the intentional action of the controller and his unsatisfactory cooperation with the supervisory authority. The fine will serve not only a repressive but also a preventive function, as it shows that the obligations arisen in connection with data breaches cannot be ignored. All the more so because an inappropriate approach to the obligations imposed by the GDPR may lead to negative consequences for those affected by the breaches.

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