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The Facebook breach – a GDPR test-case

On 28 September, Facebook notified the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) about a massive data breach affecting more than 50 million of its users.

By EDRi · October 10, 2018

The hack of the “view as” feature, which allowed users to see their profile from the perspective of an external visitor or friend, exploited an interaction of several bugs on Facebook and allowed the intruders to acquire so called “access tokens”. With these tokens, the attackers had access to personal data from the affected accounts, potentially including personal messages.

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The incident is a highly salient test-case for the application of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in practice, specifically for:

1) Notification and provision of information: Under Article 33 of the GDPR, an entity facing a breach must notify the relevant data protection authority (DPA) within 72 hours, “where feasible”. As the vulnerability was discovered on 26 September, Facebook complied with this provision, unlike other companies (Uber being one of them) have done in the past. However, the information provided by Facebook so far seems to only have delivered the very basics of what is required under the GDPR. The Irish DPC publicly urged the enterprise to submit more details so the authorities could properly assess the nature of the breach and the risk to users. Article 34 of the GDPR further requires that individuals whose personal data might have been compromised during the breach are notified without undue delay of the incident and the counter-measures that have been taken so far. Facebook implemented this by displaying a message in the feed of the affected accounts. The information provided included an initial overview on the “view as” weakness, as well as the statements that the function has been turned off and that accounts who had used it in since July 2017 had their access tokens removed, requiring a new login.

2) Sanctions: The GDPR allows for sanctions against the entity that faced the breach, which depend on the sensitivity of the compromised information and the degree to which appropriate safeguards were not implemented. Since approximately five million of the affected users come from the EU, Facebook could be liable for a 1,63 billion US dollar fine if that was found to be the case. Since the exact nature of the breach is still investigated by the Irish DPC, it remains unclear to which extent the hacking was a result of negligence. In any case, the investigation might bring some further clarification on how the responsibility for the security of processing is allocated in practice, and how strictly infringements of this obligation are sanctioned. Cases like this thus offer an opportunity for other companies processing users’ personal data to learn in more detail about their security obligations under the GDPR, and provide them with examples on how to respond to a data breach. For users, the investigation also serves an important purpose: It shows them whether the security of their data is actually taken seriously. If it is not and they suffer adverse effects from that, they have the possibility to demand compensation – and since the Irish implementation of the GDPR allows for collective redress, they could even be represented by civil society in court. On the other hand, the incident also emphasises that, even if Facebook did not act carelessly, caution about uploading personal data is always advised, as absolute safety of personal information is never certain.

This data breach is yet another example of the importance of secure and confidential storing of personal data on the internet. While the news show that the GDPR has successfully obliged Facebook to communicate in a more comprehensive and timely manner about its breach than other big tech companies previously did, it is now of utmost importance to follow up on the incident with an in-depth investigation: Users’ rights under the GDPR should be fully and effectively enforced by the Irish DPC.

A Digestible Guide to Individual’s Rights under GDPR (29.5.2018)

GDPRexplained Campaign: the new regulation is here to protect our rights (29.5.2018)

General Data Protection Regulation: Document pool (25.6.2015)

Your ePrivacy is nobody else’s business (30.5.2018)

Cambridge Analytica access to Facebook messages a privacy violation (18.4.2018)

(Contribution by Yannic Blaschke, EDRi intern)