£385,000 Data Protection Fine For Uber

Ride-hailing (and now bike and scooter-hiring) service Uber has been handed a £385,000 fine by the ICO for data protection failings during a cyber-attack back in 2016.

What Happened?

The original incident took place in October and November 2016 when hackers accessed a private GitHub coding site that was being used by Uber software engineers. Using the login details obtained via the GitHub, the attackers were able to go to the Amazon Web Services account that handled the company’s computing tasks and access an archive of rider and driver information. The result was the compromising (and theft) of data relating to 600,000 US drivers and 57 million user accounts.

The ICO’s investigation focuses on avoidable data security flaws, during the same hack, that led to the theft (using ‘credential stuffing’) of personal data, including full names, email addresses and phone numbers, of 2.7 million UK customers from the cloud-based storage system operated by Uber’s US parent company.

The ICO’s fine to Uber also relates to the record of nearly 82,000 UK-based drivers, including details of journeys made and how much they were paid.

Attackers Paid To Keep Breach Quiet

Another key failing of Uber was that not only did the company not inform affected drivers about the incident for more than a year, but Uber chose to pay the attackers $100,000 through its bug bounty programme (a deal offered by websites and software developers to offer recognition and payment to those who report software bugs), to delete the stolen data and keep quiet about the breach.

Before GDPR

Even though GDPR, which came into force on 25th May this year says that the ICO has the power to impose a fine on a data controller of up to £17m or 4% of global turnover, the Uber breach took place before GDPR.  This means that the ICO issued the £385,000 fine under the Data Protection Act 1998, which was in force before GDPR.

Other Payments and Fines

Uber also had to pay a $148m settlement agreement in a case in the US brought by 50 US states and the District of Columbia over the company’s attempt to cover up the data breach in 2016.

Also, for the same incident, Uber is facing a £533,000 fine from the data protection authority for the Netherlands, the Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

As noted by the ICO director of investigations, Steve Eckersley, as well as the data security failure, Uber’s behaviour in this case showed a total disregard for the customers and drivers whose personal information was stolen, as no steps were taken to inform anyone affected by the breach, or to offer help and support.

Sadly, Uber joins a line of well-known businesses that have made the news for all the wrong reasons where data handling is concerned e.g. Yahoo’s data breach of 500 million users’ accounts in 2014 followed by the discovery that it was the subject of the biggest data breach in history to that point back in 2013. Similar to the Uber episode is the Equifax hack where 143 million customer details were stolen (44 million possibly from UK customers), while the company waited 40 days before informing the public and three senior executives sold their shares worth almost £1.4m before the breach was publicly announced.

This story should remind businesses how important it is to invest in keeping security systems up to date and to maintain cyber resilience on all levels. This could involve keeping up to date with patching (9 out of 10 hacked businesses were compromised via un-patched vulnerabilities) and should extend to training employees in cyber-security practices, and adopting multi-layered defences that go beyond the traditional anti-virus and firewall perimeter.

Companies need to conduct security audits to make sure that no old, isolated data is stored on any old systems or platforms, thereby offering no easy access to cyber-criminals. Companies may now need to use tools that allow security devices to collect and share data and co-ordinate a unified response across the entire distributed network.

Even though the recent CIM study showed that less than one-quarter of consumers trust businesses with their data security, at least the ICO is currently sending some powerful messages to (mainly large) businesses about the consequences of not fulfilling their data protection responsibilities.  For example, as well as the big fine for Uber, back in October, the ICO fined a Manchester-based company £150,000 for making approximately 64,000 nuisance direct marketing calls to people who had opted out via the TPS, and earlier this month, a former employee of a vehicle accident repair centre who stole customer data passed it to a company that made nuisance phone calls was jailed for 6 months following an ICO investigation.

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