A University of Oxford researcher, James Pavur, has explained how (with the consent of his partner) he was able to exploit rights granted under GDPR to obtain a large amount of his partner’s personal data from a variety of companies.
Right of Access
Mr Pavur reported that he was able to send out 75 Right of Access Requests/Subject Access Requests (SAR) in order to get the first pieces of information from companies, such as his partner’s full name, some email addresses and phone numbers. Mr Pavur reported using a fake email address to make the SARs.
A Subject Access Request (SAR), which is a legal right for everyone in the UK, is where an individual can ask a company or organisation, verbally or in writing, to confirm whether they are processing their personal data and, if so, can ask the company or organisation for a copy of that data e.g. paper copy or spreadsheet. With a SAR, individuals have the legal right to know the specific purpose of any processing of their data, what type of data is being processed, who the recipients of that processed data are, how long that data stored, how the data was obtained from them in the first place, and for information about how that processed and stored data is being safeguarded. Under GDPR, individuals can make a SAR for free, although companies and organisations can charge “reasonable fees” if requests are unfounded, excessive (in scope), or where additional copies of data are requested to the original request.
Another 75 Requests
Mr Pavur reported that he was able to use the information that he received back from the first 75 requests to send out another 75 requests. From the second batch of requests Mr Pavur was able to obtain a large amount of personal data about his partner including her social security number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, previous home addresses, travel and hotel logs, her high school grades, passwords, partial credit card numbers, and some details about her online dating.
In fact, Mr Pavur reported that 24% of the targeted firms who responded (72%) accepted an email address (a false one) and a phone number as proof of identity and revealed his partner’s personal details on the strength of these. One company even revealed the results of a historic criminal background check.
According to Mr Pavur, the prevailing pattern was that large (technology) companies responded well the requests, small companies ignored the requests, and mid-sized companies showed a lack of knowledge about how to handle and verify the requests.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The ICO recognises on its website that GDPR does not specify how to make a valid request and that individuals can make a SAR to a company verbally or in writing, or to any part of your organisation (including by social media) and it doesn’t have to be made to a specific person or contact point. Such a request also doesn’t have to include the phrase ‘subject access request’ or Article 15 of the GDPR, but any request must be clear that the individual is asking for their own personal data. This means that although there may be some confusion about whether a request has actually been made, companies should at least ensure that they have identity verification and checking procedures in place before they send out personal data anyone. Sadly, in the case of this experiment, the researcher was able to obtain a large amount of personal and sensitive data about his (very understanding) partner using a fake email address.
Businesses may benefit from looking which members of staff regularly interact with individuals and from offering specific training to help those staff members identify requests.
Also, the ICO points out that it is good practice to have a policy for recording details of the requests that businesses receive, particularly those made by telephone or in-person, so that businesses can check with the requester that their request has been understood. Businesses should also keep a log of verbal requests.