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Having Saved Credit Card Details in Plaintext Since 2015, British Airways Is Fined £20 Million

Having Saved Credit Card Details in Plaintext Since 2015, British Airways Is Fined £20 Million
  • British Airways broke data protection laws, and failed to detect attack for more than two months
  • Sensitive information left exposed with no encryption

British Airways has been fined £20 million (US $26 million) following a data breach which saw its systems hacked and the personal and payment card information of 400,000 customers stolen.

It’s the biggest fine ever handed out by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which – by comparison – smacked Facebook’s wrist for a mere £500,000 over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

But many will consider that British Airways got away lightly, having initially faced a £183 million ICO fine over the breach which occurred in 2018.

British Airways’ fine may be the biggest on record, but it’s still a 90% drop from what it could have been.

Announcing the final penalty, the ICO explained that it had taken into account representations from British Airways and “the economic impact of COVID-19 on their business.”

Reading between the lines, if British Airways’ fortunes hadn’t been hit so hard by the global pandemic then the fine it would have been walloped for its enormous security failure.

And British Airways’ failure was monumental.

Amongst the airline’s blunders identified by the ICO’s redacted report on the incident included:

  • a failure to enforce the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) on accounts that provided remote access to British Airways’ internal systems.
  • a failure to prevent the exploitation of a Citrix vulnerability that allowed the attacker to launch unauthorised tools and scripts to conduct network reconnaissance.
  • the storage of login details (username and password) for a privileged domain administrator account in plaintext, giving the attacker “virtually unrestricted access to the relevant compromised domain.”

And perhaps most astonishingly of all, British Airways recklessly stored customers’ payment card details – including CVV numbers – as plaintext files.

Approximately 108,000 payment cards were available to the attacker because the data had been stored by British Airways with no encryption whatsoever.

This security breach, alongside the planting of malicious Magecart skimming code on the airline’s payment webpage which stole the personal and payment card details of hundreds of thousands of travellers as they made bookings via BA’s website and mobile app, leads ultimately to today’s record fine.

Yes, £20 million is nothing like as big as the £183 million fine that British Airways was originally facing. But it’s still the largest fine ever meted out for a data breach in the UK, and will hopefully go some way to make other companies put more effort into securing their systems better.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.