GDPR: A tool for your enemies?

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It’s estimated that 75% of employees will exercise their right to erasure now GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has come into effect. However, less than half of organisations believe that they would be able to handle a ‘right to be forgotten’ (RTBF) request without any impact on day-to-day business. 

These findings highlight the underlying issues we’re seeing in the post-GDPR era and how the new regulations put businesses at risk of being non-compliant. What is also worrying, is that there are wider repercussions for organisations not being prepared to handle RTBF requests.

No matter how well business is conducted, there is always the possibility of someone who holds a grudge against the company and wants to cause disruption to daily operations. One way to do this, without resorting to a standard cyber-attack, is through inundating an organisation with RTBF requests. Especially when the company struggles to complete one request, this can drain a company’s resources and grind the business to a halt. In addition to this, failing to comply with the requests in a timely manner can result in a non-compliance issue – a double whammy.

An unfortunate consequence of the new GDPR regulations is that the right to erasure is free to submit, meaning it is more likely customers or those with a grudge will request to have their data removed. There are two ways this can be requested. The first is a simple opt-out, to remove the name – usually an email address – from marketing campaigns. The other is a more time consuming, complex discovery and removal of all applicable data. It is this second type of request where there is a potential for hacktivists, be-grudged customers, or other cyber-attackers to weaponise the regulation requirement. 

One RTBF request is relatively easy to handle – as long as the company knows where its data is stored of course – and the organisation actually has a month to complete the request from the day it was received. However, if a company is inundated with requests coming in on the same or consecutive days, it becomes difficult to manage and has the potential to heavily impact daily operations. This kind of attack is comparable to Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks – for example the attack on the UK National Lottery last year which saw its entire online and mobile capabilities knocked out for hours because cyber criminals flooded the site with traffic – with companies becoming overloaded with so many requests that it has to stop their services entirely. 

When preparing for a flood of RTBF requests, it is essential that all organisations have a plan in place that streamlines processes for discovery and deletion of customer data, making it as easy as possible to complete multiple requests simultaneously.

The first thing to consider is whether or not the workforce is actually aware of what to do should a RTBF request come in (let alone hundreds). Educating all employees on what to do should a request be made – including who in the company to notify and how to respond to the request – is essential in guaranteeing an organisation is prepared. It will mean that any RTBF request is dealt with both correctly and in a timely manner. The process must also have clearly defined responsibilities and actions able to be audited. For companies with a DPO (Data Protection Officer) or someone who fulfils that role, this is the place to begin this process.

Discovering data is the best defence

The key to efficiency in responding to RTBF requests is discovering the data. This means the team responsible for the completion of requests is fully aware of where all the data for the organisation is stored. Therefore, a complete list of where the data can be found – and how to find it – is crucial. While data in structured storage such as a database or email is relatively simple to locate and action, it is the unstructured data, such as reports and files, which is difficult to find and is the biggest culprit of draining time and resources.

Running a ‘data discovery’ exercise is invaluable in helping organisations achieve an awareness of where data is located, as it finds data on every system and device from laptops and workstations to servers and cloud drives. Only when you know where all critical data is located, can a team assess its ability to delete it and, where applicable, remove all traces of a customer. Repeating the exercise will highlight any gaps and help indicate where additional tools may be required to address the request. Data-At-Rest scanning is frequently found as one part of a Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution.

Stray data – a ticking time bomb

Knowing where data is stored within the organisation isn’t the end of the journey however. The constant sharing of information with partners and suppliers also has to be taken into account – and for this, understanding the data flow into and out of the company is important. Shared responsibility clauses within GDPR rules means that all partners involved with critical data are liable should a breach happen or a RTBF request cannot be completed. If critical data sitting with a partner is not tracked by the company that received the RTBF request, it makes it impossible to truly complete it and the organisation could face fines of up to 20 million EUR (or 4% of their global turnover). Therefore, it’s even more important to know how and where critical data is moving at all times, minimising the sharing of information to only those who really need to know.

While there is no silver bullet to prevent stray data, there are a number of technologies which can help to control the data which is sent both in and out of a company. Implementing automated solutions, such as Adaptive Redaction and document sanitisation, will ensure that no recipient receives unauthorised critical data. This will build a level of confidence around the security of critical data for both the organisation and the customer. 

With the proper processes and technologies in place, dealing with RTBF requests is a straightforward process, whether it is a legitimate request, or an attempt by hacktivists or disgruntled customers to wreak havoc on an organisation. Streamlining data discovery processes and controlling the data flowing in and out of the company will be integral in allowing a business to complete a RTBF request and ultimately defend the organisation against a malicious use of GDPR.

Dr Guy Bunker, SVP of Products at Clearswift