Details of 900,000 people leaked in Virgin Media data breach

Details of 900,000 people leaked in Virgin Media data breach

900,000 people have been hit by a Virgin Media data breach in which a database containing personal details was accessible over the internet for 10 months.

The database contained details including email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers, which were being stored for marketing purposes.

Virgin Media have stated that the breach took place due to the database being “incorrectly configured” by a member of staff. There was no hacking or malicious intent behind the breach, although it was also apparently accessed “on at least one occasion” by an unknown and unidentified user.

Zoe Kleinman, Technology Reporter at BBC News, stated that:

The fact that Virgin Media’s database hasn’t been actively hacked is reassuring for customers, but while the details are light, it sounds like human error is to blame and that is rather embarrassing for a tech firm.


Ten months is a long time for all that data to have just been sitting there, waiting to be found.


And while no passwords or bank details were among it, there’s an awful lot of contact information for a cyber-criminal to work with. Phishing expeditions – when someone tries to get financial information out of a victim by pretending to be a company with a legitimate reason for contact – are not particularly sophisticated, but they are effective for those caught off-guard, and can be a lucrative source of income.


It’s unclear whether this was yet another case of unsecured data being stored on a cloud service that’s easily searchable if you know how. There have been dozens of examples of this lately, including just this week a database of the personal details of people using train station wi-fi around the UK.


Virgin Media has apologised and really, there’s very little practical advice to offer in the light of this kind of breach, beyond the usual protocol of staying alert to any messages requesting personal information or access to any kind of finance.

You can read the full article on this story from the BBC, with Kleinman’s commentary, by clicking here.

This Virgin Media data breach is the latest in a series, from various organisations, which have seen databases left unsecured online. For example, a Microsoft database containing 250 million details was left exposed in December, as we reported here.

This is a worrying trend, and shows that these databases should be configured carefully by people who know the proper procedures and are fully trained and knowledgeable about cybersecurity.

Virgin Media has taken steps to close access the database, contact the ICO, and notify those affected by the breach, with advice about how to protect themselves from potential repercussions. While these are all positive steps, there’s no doubt that significant errors have been made and this breach could easily have been avoided.

If you want advice on how to protect user data, get in contact with our GDPR consultants today for invaluable, expert advice.

Insights from Sheila Fitzpatrick – PrivSec London 2020

Insights from Sheila Fitzpatrick – PrivSec London 2020

At the PrivSec London conference last week, we heard from Sheila Fitzpatrick, a global expert in privacy and compliance. Here’s our pick of what she had to say and her advice about GDPR, the culture shift it has already brought about, and data privacy and security.

Anonymising data doesn’t truly make data safe, because someone in the organisation still has access to the original data. You need to really think about why your company is getting and using data – achieving an ‘improved user experience’ is not a good enough excuse. Companies often think that security is the same thing as privacy, and point enquiries about privacy to security protocols – but this is an ‘instant fail’ in Fitzpatrick’s book.

Companies in many other countries don’t realise they’re still subject to other countries’ Data Protection laws such as GDPR – and many countries are also planning laws that will exceed its requirements. GDPR created an awareness of changing legal focus from data security to the lawful bases for processing data, which in turn became the impetus for new laws across the world – as well as adding new technologies which also created privacy issues.

GDPR became the biggest revenue generator since Y2K – and there are a lot of solutions in the market. Companies often like to believe that they can buy ‘compliance in a box’, which is impossible and shows a lack of understanding of privacy; they often throw technology at the problem and assume that innovation will provide a better user experience.

They think that privacy will become irrelevant as a result of this approach; that it can be addressed through a simple checkbox, or that they have a “legitimate interest” in processing personal data. However, this probably isn’t true if the basis can’t be explained on a page clearly. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that if consent is ambiguous, it’s invalid under GDPR.

Big Data is problematic for GDPR compliance on many fronts, and so are AI and Smart Cities: it’s difficult to meet consumer rights demands for example, and to maintain anonymity where necessary.

Fitzpatrick noted that to access public Wi-Fi from a major telecommunications company recently, she had to wade through 5 pages of Privacy Policy and still couldn’t find out how to turn cookies off – which is not compliant with GDPR requirements.

You need to always be honest about what you’re doing; if you can’t, you’ve got a problem. Be upfront about your use of third parties who receive data from you, and don’t let vendors dictate terms to you as their terms can put you in breach. Privacy improvements give a competitive advantage and failing to comply can damage reputations badly.

Our thanks to Sheila Fitzpatrick for these insights and for giving an engaging and thought-provoking talk.

Insights from Sheila Fitzpatrick – PrivSec London 2020

The Need for a Culture Shift – PrivSec London 2020

From what we heard at the PrivSec London conference this week, it was clear that a culture shift is needed in many – maybe most – companies coming into the new decade. Our thanks go to the guest speakers who provided these insights – you can see a full list of those whose talks we attended at the end of this article.

Here are some culture shifts that companies need to be making in order to keep up with changing legislation and guidelines:

CULTURE SHIFT #1: Have a plan for privacy and cybersecurity, with people and budgets allocated to it.

CULTURE SHIFT #2: Don’t assume that privacy = cybersecurity, you’ll fail if you assume it’s a tech matter. Do a dummy run of a data breach at your organisation – it’ll probably throw up some significant issues.

CULTURE SHIFT #3: To get buy-in across the organisation, explain Privacy and Cybersecurity matters in the business terms of each department or stakeholder group’s business goals, such as making money, reputation protection, and so on.

CULTURE SHIFT #4: Getting your data into one place (e.g. the cloud) makes it more controllable in one place with a lot of access but is also where the biggest risk lies. Work out what you’ve got and what you are moving to the cloud – delete as much as you can of your data set defensively, use the infrastructure and systems there to look after every piece of information in one system and apply policies across everything.

CULTURE SHIFT #5: Get tighter on checking, stating and enabling opt-outs for all the cookies working on your website(s), such as trackers: many of these may be coming from your third-party hosting provider rather than your own web developers and plugins! ‘Continued browsing’ or browser settings aren’t adequate to demonstrate consents anymore under the latest government guidances.

CULTURE SHIFT #6: For businesses, ethics ARE sustainability. They’re about only using data for transparent, legitimate reasons that genuinely improve the user experience and give users control over the data held about them and how it is used. They’re about not ruining trust or making customers uneasy about using your business or website or platform.

Our thanks to the following guest speakers at PrivSec London 2020:

  • Steve Wright, Partner, Privacy Culture Ltd, previously DPO for Bank of England, also John Lewis and Unilever previously
  • Baroness Neville-Rolfe, EU Committee member
  • Sheila Firtzpatrick, Fitzpatrick & Associates
  • Dave Horton, Solutions Engineer at OneTrust
  • Shaab Al-Baghdadi, OnlineDPO; Emily Johnson, Microsoft, Bill Karazsia, Fortive; Joao Torres Barreiro, Wills Towers Watson;
  • Charlie Wijsman, Accenture Global Data Privacy Lead
  • Damine Larrey, Microsoft; Dominic Johnston, Epiq Global; Damian Murphy, Lighthouse Global
  • Alberto Quesada, Global Head of Group Data Management, BNP Paribas
  • John Richardson, DMA, and formerly the Telephone Preference Service; Giorgia Vulcan, EU Privacy Counsel for the EU DPO Office, Coca-Cola; Or Lechner, Luminati Networks; Marie Bradley, Adam & Eve; Magali Fey, Anonos
    Ben Hawes, Benchmark initiative
  • Joan Keevil, Professional e-Learning Expert, SAI Global
  • David Clarke, Founder, GDPR Technology Forum; Beth Brookner, Privacy Counsel and Data Protection Officer, GVC Ladbrokes Coral; Steve Windle, Incident Response Lead for Europe & Latin America, Accenture; Cosimo Monda, Director, Maastricht European Centre on Privacy and Cybersecurity; Simon Hall, Privacy Consultant & DPO Coach, AwarePrivacy
  • Stuart Aston, National Security Officer, Microsoft
  • Greg Van Der Gaast, Head of Information Security, University of Salford
  • Meera Narendra, Journalist, Data Protection World Forum; Dr Shavana Musa, Legal Consultant and Academic, The University of Manchester;  Victoria Guilloit, Partner, Privacy Culture; Ally Pinkerton, Group Head of Information Security Governance & Assurance, Group Information Security Office, Bupa
First UK GDPR fine issued

First UK GDPR fine issued

The first UK GDPR fine has been issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). A fine of £275,000 was issued to Doorstep Dispensaree Ltd, a pharmacy based in London which supplies medicine to care homes.

The fine was issued on 20th December 2019 after an investigation by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Although the MHRA was investigating other issues, they found an estimated 500,000 documents containing personal data left unsecured in an outside courtyard at the pharmacy’s premises.

The documents were apparently found in storage crates, a cardboard box, and disposal bags. According to a report from mondaq:

These were neither secure nor marked as confidential waste. Although the courtyard where the documents were found was locked, it could still be accessed from residential flats via a fire escape, leaving the documents vulnerable to potential unauthorised or unlawful access. The ICO also confirmed that some of the documents were found to be “soaking wet, indicating that they had been stored in this way for some time” and that this “careless” storage failed to protect the documents from accidental loss or damage.


The personal data included care home patients’ names, addresses, dates of birth, NHS numbers, medical information and prescriptions. As information relating to an individual’s health is classified as special category personal data under the GDPR, its sensitivity requires more stringent security measures to be in place to provide additional protection. Consequently, the pharmacy’s failure to ensure appropriate security for this data was considered to be a serious breach of the GDPR.

There are many important things to note from this first UK GDPR fine:

  • While £275,000 is a significantly greater fine than anything issued pre-GDPR, it is also far short of the maximum possible. This is because the ICO has taken into consideration the size and financial position of Doorstep Dispensaree Ltd to make the fine “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”.
  • The data involved was not breached, but was stored in a dangerous way that was non-compliant with GDPR. The ICO is not merely looking at breaches, but overall compliance.
  • GDPR does not only apply to data stored digitally, but hard copies as well. Physical documents should be stored safely and securely, and properly disposed of as well.
  • Data controllers are required to protect data against damage or accidental loss; apart from questions over security, it is clear that storing documents outside in a cardboard box will insufficiently protect them from damage.
  • According to a report from Lexology: “The Commissioner noted that the pharmacy’s data protection documents were out of date, inadequate or were generic templates. They did not have a retention policy.” So there were other failings at the pharmacy, which showed little compliance with GDPR in any way.

Our GDPR Consultants can always advise an organisation about what they must do to become GDPR compliant. If Doorstep Dispensaree Ltd had obtained external, professional advice about data protection, they might have been able to avoid this fine.

If you have any concerns about compliance at your organisation, get in touch with us today and we’ll work with you on your data protection programme.

Royal College of Psychiatrists: Social media data should be handed over

Royal College of Psychiatrists: Social media data should be handed over

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for social media data to be handed over to academics in order to protect children and young people who are at risk of suicide.

By studying the content that is being viewed, the hope is that new research could help protect users from material that could harm them.

According to an article from The Guardian:

“We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the college’s child and adolescent mental health faculty. “Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.”


Data passed to academics would show the type of material viewed and how long users were spending on such platforms but would be anonymous, the college said.

That the data would be anonymised could potentially make this course of action permissible under GDPR, but this data is nonetheless extremely sensitive. Care would have to be taken to ensure that it was shared with academics legally and that users were sufficiently protected.

The idea has received support from other sources as well. The Guardian goes on:

NHS England challenged firms to hand over the sort of information that the college is suggesting. Claire Murdoch, its national director for mental health, said that action was needed “to rein in potentially misleading or harmful online content and behaviours”.


She said: “If these tech giants really want to be a force for good, put a premium on users’ wellbeing and take their responsibilities seriously, then they should do all they can to help researchers better understand how they operate and the risks posed. Until then, they cannot confidently say whether the good outweighs the bad.”

Click here to read the full article from The Guardian.

With the government currently planning measures to make the internet a safer place for users, including setting up an independent regulator and placing a duty of care on online companies, the Royal College of Psychiatrists may well get what they want here.

But with data privacy being a major concern here, there is also likely to be objections. According to the BBC, civil rights group Big Brother Watch stated that users should be “empowered to choose what data they give away, who to and for what purposes”, and that young people should not be treated like “lab rats” on social media.