This article is more than 1 year old

You've been hacked. What are you liable for?

'It won't happen to me...' but best be prepared

Hacking is big news and we’re all susceptible. In the UK, hackers could face jail time under the Computer Misuse Act, but the question on many businesses’ minds will be where the liability lies if they are hacked.

The list of successful mega breaches continues to grow; extra-marital affairs site Ashley Madison hit the headlines last summer when data was exposed about its 37 million users, although it appeared many of those were fake accounts. Earlier this year, Yahoo! revealed the numbers behind its 2014 data breach – 500 million user account credentials were stolen.

In 2016, the SWIFT financial payments system was hacked, and this came after another group using the same approach stole $81m from the Bangladesh central bank. Even the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, detected more than 50 cyber breaches between 2011 and 2015, according to cybersecurity reports obtained through a freedom of information request.

Regulator fine

Telecoms company TalkTalk has the dubious honour of having received the largest fine ever imposed by the Information Commissioner’s Office – £400,000 – for a cyber attack which allowed access to customer data “with ease”. The ICO’s investigation revealed that Talk Talk could have prevented the attack by taking simple basic steps to protect customer information.

The TalkTalk fine is far lighter than the £3m fine issued by the then-FSA to HSBC in 2009 for not having adequate systems and controls to protect customers’ confidential information.

But even that fine seems small compared to the new fines on the way under GDPR. In general, failing to take appropriate measures could lead to a fine the higher of €10m or 2 per cent of an undertaking’s total worldwide annual turnover. If coupled with other data breaches, these figures could be doubled to €20m and 4 per cent.

One of the difficulties facing organisations is that data protection legislation is vague when it comes to specifying the standards of protection required. The Data Protection Directive and the UK Data Protection Act both require the data controller to “implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to protect personal data against accidental or unlawful destruction or accidental loss, alteration, unauthorized disclosure or access”.

This concept is carried over to the new EU General Data Protection Regulation, which will be enforced throughout the EU – yes, including the UK – from May 2018. In fact, it also requires the controller to build in data protection by design and by default.

What does this actually mean though? What measures are appropriate? Well, the ICO has not yet stipulated a particular minimum threshold for protection, but it generally penalises organisations that suffer the loss of unencrypted laptops and mobile devices. The GDPR itself suggests pseudonymisation and data minimisation as part of a data controller's approach to protection.

While the vagueness in the legislation might mean businesses aren’t clear on what they have to do, it also means the law doesn’t have to be constantly updated to specify the latest industry standards on data security. Besides, every CISO I’ve spoken to has a clear understanding of what measures are appropriate, and it’s just whether they can persuade the CFO to allocate the budget for it.


In March of 2016, a Chinese businessman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack computer networks of US defence contractors holding information about the Stealth Bomber, which he was claimed to have passed to the Chinese government.

If you operate in the defence industry, you are likely to have made various promises to the government under the Official Secrets Act or the US and other national equivalents. You will probably have a fairly good idea of what is expected of you, so we need not go into detail here, save to reiterate that breaches could amount to jail time.

Next page: Business failure

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like