Following on from some of the ranting I’ve been doing about the current unhealthy obsession with consent for processing, here’s a funky tool that I have created for determining whether consent is the appropriate legal basis for processing under GDPR.
At the moment, it only covers Article 6 but I’m working on another one that addresses special categories of personal data as well.
Please let me know what you think about this tool in the comments section!
I’ve been seeing tweets and discussions on tech and infosec forums, some of which have queried whether this circumstance would be a breach under GDPR for which regulatory penalties could be enforced. The answer to whether this incident represents a failure of Verelox to meet the requirements of GDPR is going to depend on many details which are not currently available, however as a former infosec professional now turned to privacy; I’d be inclined if asked, to give the standard Data Protection Officer answer: “It depends”. Because it does.
The GDPR requires that organisations take “appropriate technical and organisational measures” to manage risks to the rights and freedoms of individuals whose data is being processed (Article 24.1) and specifically, to protect the confidentiality and integrity of personal data in proportion to the risks to the individual and the capabilities of available technology (Article 32.1).
In this case, it is very likely that Verelox will be a Data Processor rather than a Data Controller for any personal data that was stored/hosted/collected on their cloud platform, since they were providing infrastructure only and not making any decisions about how people’s information would be used. However, GDPR does bring in Data Processor joint liability for data breaches (defined as “a breach of security leading to the accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed” (Article 4.12)) and places explicit obligations on Data Processors as well as Data Controllers to “ensure the ongoing confidentiality, integrity, availability and resilience of processing systems and services”. (Article 82). Interestingly, the right to compensation does not specify “natural persons” in regard to compensation as it does to the definition of personal data, which may leave the door open for Verelox’s customers to make claims under GDPR rather than contract law to recover some of their losses arising from the incident. I’m not familiar with Dutch law, so I’ll leave that in the realms of speculation for the moment. What GDPR does appear to say is that Verelox could potentially be jointly liable with their customers for claims for damages from individuals, as a result of this incident. Whether they are actually culpable is something that will need careful consideration, and this is where I put my infosec hat back on for a while…
Does the fact that this happened therefore mean Verelox’s measures were not appropriate? Well, again the answer is going to be “It depends”. Based on the information available in news reports at the moment, this seems to be a rare and extreme case of a malicious insider with a grudge acting independently and outside the law. Should the company be held responsible for this?
One of the factors to consider will be whether this damage was done while the individual was still an insider (i.e. employed as a systems administrator) or whether it happened later on after they left the role? If the attack was carried out later on there is a possibility that Verelox might have dropped the ball, since the individual should have had their access revoked as soon as their employment came to an end, and in such a way that it would be difficult to trigger such a meltdown from the outside. If the attack was carried out post-employment then the “technical and organisational measures” Verelox had in place may not have been “appropriate”. Questions that should be asked are:
was there a standard procedure for revoking leavers’ access in a timely manner,
was that procedure followed in this particular case,
was there a culture of adherence to security procedures in general?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then Verelox might be in for a difficult time ahead.
If the attack was planned and set in motion while the individual was an insider; could/should pre-employment vetting or line management support procedures have identified the possibility? This one is tricky, as any predictive measure of human behaviour is never going to be 100% accurate on an individual level. Previous and similar shenanigans carried out by a prospective or current employee could be an indicator of higher risk of future shenanigans occurring, but that really depends on the person and the circumstances. No record of any previous shenanigans may mean; this person has done it before but was never caught, this person has never been in circumstances where this behaviour could be provoked, or simply that this person just wouldn’t do a thing like this in any circumstances. There’s just no way to tell in advance. Maybe this guy is a nutter who has a tendency to react destructively when upset – but that doesn’t mean we should be advocating for mandatory psychological examinations of all employees who are to be trusted with privileged access as that would be a grossly disproportionate invasion of privacy (and not necessarily accurate enough to be worth the effort either…)
What about Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Planning? Should these plans have included mitigation for this level of malicious damage by a privileged insider? Again, maybe – but it depends. Does malicious insider damage happen often enough to justify the expense, protocol and monitoring capability that would be required to prevent and detect this activity while managing both false positives and negatives? While this sort of grudge-attack is always a possibility, it may make better business sense to develop, manage and support employees so that the chances of behaviour like this are reduced, rather than make the default assumption that everyone is a potential vandal/criminal and treat them accordingly. In any case; what organisation really has the resources and support available to maintain standby equipment and datastores in a way which make them easy to fail over to in the event of an attack or disaster but too difficult for an admin with a grudge to take out alongside the live system?
Hindsight is always 20/20-sharp and there are plenty of armchair experts gleefully pontificating about what they think Verelox should have done better or differently. In the current absence of detailed information though; there’s no reason to pay any attention to any of them at the moment. It’s easy to say “well Verelox should have done x,y,z; they’re idiots for not doing it” but far harder to balance the management approach for predictable but unlikely risks. Paying attention to managing the risks that can be managed, in a proportionate way that doesn’t stop the business operating, is the fine line that infosec teams must walk; often in difficult conditions – mostly unappreciated, frequently facing opposition from people who don’t understand or have different views of the risks and dependencies, probably under-resourced and constantly firefighting seems to be the norm for most operational infosec roles. There are cases where all you can do is as much as you can to put in place quick-recovery plans and buy insurance against the things that you really have no control over (like some loony destroying your business operations out of pique). This may well be one of them.
TL;DR version – if Verelox can demonstrate that they took reasonable and appropriate precautions to mitigate the risk of the attack, then they are unlikely to be subject to penalties or remedies under GDPR. However, if they can’t demonstrate that their measures were developed and maintained to be appropriate to the risks then they may be subject to regulatory enforcement (unlikely) or civil claims (possible). Whether GDPR would be the appropriate instrument for bringing action under is not something I’m qualified to comment on.
You may have noticed that the General Data Protection Regulation is rather in the news lately, and quite right too considering there is only a year left to prepare for the most stringent and wide-reaching privacy law the EU has yet seen. Unfortunately however, in the rush to jump onto the latest marketing bandwagon, a lot of misleading and inaccurate information posing as “advice” in order to promote products and services is flourishing and appears to be drowning out more measured and expert commentary. Having seen a worrying number of articles, advertisements, blog posts and comments all giving the same wrong message about GDPR’s “consent” requirements, I was compelled to provide a layperson’s explanation of what GDPR really says on the subject.
So, let me start by saying GDPR DOES NOT MAKE CONSENT A MANDATORY REQUIREMENT FOR ALL PROCESSING OF PERSONAL DATA.
and again, so we’re completely clear – GDPR DOES NOT MAKE CONSENT A MANDATORY REQUIREMENT FOR ALL PROCESSING OF PERSONAL DATA!!!
So what does GDPR say about consent? It says that to be allowed to process (i.e. do anything at all involving a computer or organised manual files) personal data, you must have at least one “legal basis” for doing do. Let’s call the list of legal basis “Good Reasons” for now, to keep the language friendly.
The Good Reasons are:
when you have consent to process personal data
when there is a contract between you and the individual (“data subject”) or between the individual and someone else which requires you to process their personal data in order to fulfil its terms. This also applies to any processing that is needed in order to prepare or negotiate entering into a contract. Example: buying a house
When there’s a law or legal obligation (not including a contract) that you can only comply with by processing personal data – example, accident reports for health & safety records
when someone’s vital interests are at stake unless personal data is processed (usually only applicable to life-or-death situations – e.g. the emergency services having a list of employee names to identify survivors after a building collapse)
In the public interest or when acting under official public authority – such as political parties being allowed to have a copy of the electoral register (providing they don’t take the mickey in their uses of it).
When personal data needs to be processed for an activity which is in the “legitimate interests” of the organisation (“Data Controller”) or the individual.
Now, just because consent is listed first does not mean that it is the most preferable Good Reason, the most important or the default option. It is none of those things – in fact, when considering which Good Reason applies to processing, the other options should be tested first. If you picked consent because it was top of the list and consent was later withdrawn, but you realised there was a legal obligation to continue to process the data, you would be in a pickle – either you’d be in breach of privacy law (continuing to process when consent has been withdrawn) or in breach of the other legal obligation.
Please note that opting for “legitimate interests” as the Good Reason is not a way of dodging around the prospect that consent may be withdrawn or refused, as there is an absolute right for the individual to object to the processing of their personal data when “legitimate interests” is the Good Reason for processing. All legitimate interests does is save you the effort of having to obtain and demonstrate specific, informed and freely-given consent before you can have or start using the data.
When it comes to special categories of personal data (formerly known as “sensitive personal data”), there is another set of legal basis (we’ll call these Damn Good reasons) which must also be met for the processing to be allowed. In fact, GDPR says that unless one of these Damn Good Reasons is applicable, then you’re not allowed to process special categories of personal data at all.
The Damn Good Reasons are:
When you have explicit consent
When employment law, social protection law or social security law says you have to do something that requires the processing of special categories of personal data
When the processing is required in someone’s vital interests but the individual is incapable of giving consent
When the processing is necessary and carried out by a trade union, philosophical or religious non-profit organisation to administer their membership operations
When the individual has already and deliberately made the data public
When the processing is necessary to defend legal rights, legal claims or for the justice system to function
When the processing is necessary in the public interest (just like in the Good Reasons list)
When the processing is necessary in order to provide health care, treatment and management of health care services
When public health may be at risk if the processing isn’t carried out
When the processing is necessary for archiving, historical or scientific research, or statistical analysis
Again, although consent tops the list it does not mean that it should be the first choice of Damn Good Reason. As with the other list, it is wise to consider first whether there are other Damn Good Reasons that apply and only choose consent where there are no alternatives.
There is some confusion at the moment about the difference between “consent” (Good Reasons) and “explicit consent” (Damn Good Reasons), especially as GDPR says that for any consent to be valid, it must be “unambiguous”. I’m going to leave the dissection of that to greater minds than mine (see refs). However, I will say that when in doubt, go for whichever approach gives you the most solid evidence.
So that’s what GDPR says about whether and when you need consent.
HOWEVER – another law (the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations, aka “PECR”) says that you must have explicit prior consent before sending any unsolicited direct marketing by email. This is not the same as the Good Reason/Damn Good Reason “[explicit] consent for processing” but the separate requirements are often confused. It may be in your organisation’s legitimate interests to collect, store and analyse contact info but if you are emailing unsolicited direct marketing messages you will also need to have obtained consent for email marketing from the recipient.
A few words on mechanisms vs outcomes (if you’re still reading, congratulate yourself on your fortitude!)
‘Consent’ is an outcome – you and the individual have achieved a defined, mutually-understood, relationship in which you as a Data Controller can process their personal data for a particular purpose and in a particular way. This outcome needs to be an ongoing state of affairs. If the individual later decides to change the relationship and no longer allow you to process their data then you no longer have consent (and must stop and current or future processing).
Tickboxes, signatures and “click here” buttons are mechanisms for obtaining consent. However, if the agreement you have obtained using this mechanism is not specific, informed and freely-given then you do not have valid consent under data protection law.
Transaction logs, screen prints, signed documents and call recordings are evidence for the process of obtaining consent. These are only as good as the outcome that the process supports. If the individual has been misled, or they dispute that the processing you are doing is what they actually agreed to, or the processing purpose + Good/Damn Good Reason was not made clear to them, or they have simply changed their mind then you do not have valid consent even if you have evidence that consent was asked/supplied at one point in time. Consent is not a fire-and-forget activity, and consent obtained once is not set in stone forever.
So in order to be able to get and keep valid consent you need to have good processes for obtaining, maintaining and verifying the outcome, ie. the relationship between you and the individual. This means careful attention to training, customer service and content of privacy notices.
So, in summary (well done for getting this far!)
GDPR does not say “all processing requires consent”- and anyone who says that it does, clearly does not know what they are talking about. Ignore them.
GDPR says that sometimes you will need to get consent and when that is the case; it sets out the standards that you must meet.
Consent for unsolicited electronic marketing as required by PECR is not the same thing as consent for processing of data described in GDPR.
I hope that clears it all up.
More about consent under GDPR if that is the Good Reason/Damn Good Reason you need to use:
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that there are lots of people talking about GDPR – which is a good thing.
However, there is lots of nonsense being talked about GDPR – which is a bad thing.
My Twitter timeline, LinkedIn feed and email inbox are being deluged with advertising for GDPR compliance “solutions” and services – which is fine as long as the product in question is treated as a tool in the toolbox and not a magic instant-fix-in-a-box spell for instant transformation
Based on some of the twaddle I’ve seen being talked about GDPR lately, and my own experience in supporting data protection within organisations, here is a list of markers which, should they appear in an article, advertisement or slideshow, should be a warning to treat the rest of the content with a hefty pinch of salt.
Banging on about fines. Yes; there is a big maximum fine. No, it’s unlikely to be enforced except for the most egregious cases of reckless negligence. The ICO has never levied the maximum penalty for any breach ever. Based on the evidence available, fines alone are not really a convincing justification for compliance.
Obsessing about consent. Consent is only one of a number of possible legal basis for processing of personal data. It may not the most appropriate, desirable or “compliant” basis to select and insisting on consent where there is a statutory or contractual requirement for processing personal data; or where the individual has no real choice whether to give consent may result in “unfair processing” which could draw regulatory enforcement or litigation.
Focusing on infosec and infosec tech. Information security (the “confidentiality and integrity” principle) is just 1 of 6 principles and doesn’t even start to fulfil obligations around rights or fairness. While it is important, focusing on infosec to the exclusion of the other principles is just as likely to cause serious problems as forgetting it altogether.
Claiming that encryption is a mandatory requirement. Yes, it is mentioned specifically in a few places (Recital 83, Article 6, Article 32, Article 34) it is referenced as an example of a tool with which to mitigate risk. Whether you need it depends on the “scope, nature and context” of processing. Just having encryption will not make you “compliant” and not having encryption on ALL TEH THINGS will not mean that data is at risk of exposure.
Making it all about “compliance”. A finding of “compliance” in an audit is merely a snapshot of a point in time, assuming that the audit itself was sufficiently robust. A compliance-focused attitude often leads to ‘gaming the system’ (as anyone who has ever had an argument about scoping for PCI-DSS or ISO2700x can attest). Ticking boxes does not produce the intended outcome on its own -the paperwork must match reality. GDPR requires your reality to uphold principles, obligations, rights. If you’re not doing this in practice, no amount of audit reports, certificates or checklists will save you when it all goes wrong. Think “maturity” and “assurance”, “quality” and “effectiveness” rather than “compliance”
Insisting that only lawyers can be DPOs. There are some very good data protection lawyers out there in the wild, but an awfully large majority of lawyers who know almost nothing about privacy law. There are many experienced and competent data protection professionals who know privacy law inside-out but do not hold law degree. The only reason for insisting on having a lawyer as a Data Protection Officer or DP Lead is if the lawyer is *already* a DP specialist with business, communications & technical skills. The “lawyer” part is incidental.
Marketing GDPR stuff by breaching other laws (PECR) or in breach of DPA/GDPR itself (were you given a privacy notice about the use of your information for marketing purposes? Is it a fair use of your personal data?)
Calling it the “General Data Protection Regulations”. Seriously, people. It’s Regulation (EU) 2016/679, singular (even though there is a lot of it).
OK, those are the “approach with caution” signs. But how to find good advice on GDPR? Here’s some advice for spotting people who probably know what they’re talking about:
A competent privacy practitioner will tell you
There is no magic spell; time, effort, decision-making and resources will be required to adapt to GDPR requirements
There is no single tool, audit framework, self-assessment template, cut-n-paste policy or off-the-shelf training module that will make you “compliant”. You need to address systems, process AND culture at all layers and contexts.
Records management is just as significant as infosec (if not more so)
It’s not about paperwork – it’s about upholding fundamental human rights and freedoms (OK, that last one might be a step too far for many DP pro.s, but it is significant both to the intent and the implementation of GDPR.)
A few more handy tips for your Privacy Team lineup
Domain-specific knowledge is vital and valuable – but remember that specialists specialise, and so it is unlikely that someone who has only ever worked in one area of information governance (e.g. information security, records management) or context (HR, marketing, sales) will be able to address all of your GDPR needs.
The same consideration applies for lawyers – commercial, contract and general counsel-type lawyers are probably not as familiar with privacy law as with their own areas of expertise.
In summary, to find good GDPR advice, you should:
Get a rounded view
Consider risks to individuals’ privacy not just organisational impact
Instil and maintain privacy-aware culture and practices
Be deeply suspicious of any/all claims of one-stop/universal fixes