Equifax hit with maximum UK data breach fine

Credit ratings agency Equifax has been fined £500,000, the maximum possible at the time, by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for failing to protect the personal and financial information of up to 15m UK citizens during a cyber-attack in 2017

The incident, which happened between 13 May and 30 July 2017 in the US, affected 146m customers globally.

The ICO investigation found that, although the information systems in the US were compromised, Equifax Ltd was responsible for the personal information of its UK customers. The UK arm of the company failed to take appropriate steps to ensure its American parent Equifax Inc, which was processing the data on its behalf, was protecting the information.

The ICO’s probe, carried out in parallel with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), revealed multiple failures at the credit reference agency which led to personal information being retained for longer than necessary and vulnerable to unauthorised access.

The investigation was carried out under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 1998), rather than the current General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as the failings occurred before stricter laws came into force in May of this year. The fine is the maximum allowed under the previous legislation; under GDPR organisations can face fines of up to €20m (£17.7m), or 4% of annual global turnover.

The company contravened five out of eight data protection principles of DPA 1998, including failure to secure personal data, poor retention practices, and lack of legal basis for international transfers of UK citizens’ data. 

Elizabeth Denham, UK information commissioner said: ‘The loss of personal information, particularly where there is the potential for financial fraud, is not only upsetting to customers, it undermines consumer trust in digital commerce.

‘We are determined to look after UK citizens’ information wherever it is held. Equifax Ltd has received the highest fine possible under the 1998 legislation because of the number of victims, the type of data at risk and because it has no excuse for failing to adhere to its own policies and controls as well as the law.’

The ICO found that measures that should have been in place to manage the personal information were inadequate and ineffective. Investigators found significant problems with data retention, IT system patching, and audit procedures. The investigation also found that the US Department of Homeland Security had warned Equifax Inc about a critical vulnerability as far back as March 2017. Sufficient steps to address the vulnerability were not taken meaning a consumer-facing portal was not appropriately patched.

The personal information lost or compromised during the incident ranged from names and dates of birth to addresses, passwords, driving licence and financial details.

Report by Pat Sweet

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