Could the GDPR be Weaponized?

I will be participating in a webinar on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on November 9th along with ZL Technologies and Viewpointe (you can sign up for it here).

In one of our planning meetings for this event, the topic of Subject Access Requests (SARs) was discussed. One of the presenters wondered if SARs could somehow be used by anarchists or others to cause massive disruption to an organization. Given that data subjects in the European Union have the right to request any information about them that a data controller possesses, usually without a fee, and that requests must be processed within a month, what would happen if an organized group (are anarchists, by definition, organized?) flooded an organization with SARs in a very short period of time. There are situations in which data controllers are not obligated to provided data under an SAR, such as GDPR Article 23 which allows the Legal Professional Privilege (LPP) as an exemption to fulfillment of an SAR. However, this is a fairly limited exemption and would not prevent the type of planned disruption that might be made possible under the GDPR.

The potential for causing mass disruption using SARs is not as far-fetched as some might consider it to be. Given that it will take several hours to process a single request for a company that has not implemented an appropriate classification and archiving capability for all of the potentially relevant organization it has on data subjects, the potential for disruption is enormous. For example, if we very conservatively assume that just two person-hours would be required to process an SAR and someone wanted to “attack” an organization with 5,000 SARs in a single week, that would obligate a data controller to spend 10,000 person-hours — about five person-years — processing these requests in a very short period of time. While such a scenario against any single entity is unlikely, the likelihood that it will occur to some company is rather high, as is the risk: few organizations’ legal or IT teams have such an excess of labor available to them to deal with this type of occurrence.

This is just one of the topics we will be discussing at the webinar on November 9th. I hope you can join us.

BYOD OK?

We have recently completed a survey of IT decision makers that are knowledgeable about security issues in their organizations, and we found something surprising: the concern about “shadow IT” — employee use of unauthorized cloud apps or services — is significantly lower in this year’s survey than it was just over a year ago. While there can be variability between surveys because of sampling and other issues, the difference we found is not explained by sampling variability, but instead represents a significant shift of concern away from the problem of shadow IT and BYOD/C/A (Bring Your Own Devices/Cloud/Applications).

Why?

Three theories:

  • First, we have not seen big, headline-grabbing data breaches result from the use of personally owned smartphones, tablets, laptops and other employee-owned and managed devices, cloud applications and mobile applications. While these breaches occur and clearly are a problem, the horror stories that were anticipated from the use of these devices have been few and far between.
  • Second, senior management — both in IT and in lines of business — have seemingly acquiesced to the notion of employees using their own devices. They realize that stopping employees from using their own devices to access work-related resources is a bit like controlling ocean surf with a broom.
  • Third, there are some advantages that businesses can realize from employees using their own devices. While lower business costs are an important advantage because IT doesn’t have to purchase devices for some employees, another important benefit is that IT doesn’t have to manage them either. For example, when an employee leaves a company and company-supplied devices need to be deactivated, some organizations aren’t exactly sure who’s responsible for doing so — IT, the employee’s manager, HR or someone else. A survey we conducted some time back asked, “when an employee who had a company-supplied mobile phone leaves your employment, how confident are you that you are not still paying for their mobile service?” We found that only 43 percent of respondents were “completely confident” that the mobile service was deactivated, and 11 percent either were “not really sure” or just didn’t know. Employees using their own devices and plans gets around this problem nicely.

To be sure, unfettered and unmanaged use of employee devices in the workplace is not a good idea. It can lead to a number of problems, such as the inability for IT to know where all of a company’s data is stored, the inability to properly archive that data, the inability to produce all of it during an eDiscovery effort or a regulatory audit, lots of duplicate data, a failure to establish an authoritative record for corporate data, a greater likelihood of data breaches if a device is lost, and the potential for not being able to satisfy regulatory obligations.

That last point is particularly important, especially in the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). A key element of the GDPR is a data subject’s “right to be forgotten”, which translates to a data holder’s obligation to find and expunge all data it has on a data subject. If an organization cannot first determine all of the data it holds on a data subject and then cannot find all of that data, it runs the risk of violating the GDPR and can pay an enormous penalty as a result.

In short, BYOD/C/A offers a number of important advantages, but it carries with it some serious risks and should be addressed as a high priority issue in any organization.