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The UK’s data protection watchdog has issued the maximum possible fine to Cathay Pacific in response to a major breach at the Asian airline which resulted in the compromise of millions of customers’ data.

The £500,000 penalty from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) comes under the old Data Protection Act 1998, which was superseded by the GDPR, and its UK version the Data Protection Act 2018.

Over 111,000 of the Hong Kong airline’s 9.5 million global passengers were from the UK. The ICO judged that between October 2014 and May 2018 insufficient security measures were put in place, enabling hackers to compromise an internet-connected server and install data harvesting malware in the 2018 breach.

Specifically, it called out a “catalog of errors” including: back-up files that weren’t password protected unpatched internet-facing servers, inadequate AV and use of unsupported operating systems.

“People rightly expect when they provide their personal details to a company, that those details will be kept secure to ensure they are protected from any potential harm or fraud. That simply was not the case here,” said ICO director of investigations, Steve Eckersley.

“This breach was particularly concerning given the number of basic security inadequacies across Cathay Pacific’s system, which gave easy access to the hackers. The multiple serious deficiencies we found fell well below the standard expected. At its most basic, the airline failed to satisfy four out of five of the National Cyber Security Centre’s basic Cyber Essentials guidance.”

The size of the UK fine also shines a light on the inadequacies of Hong Kong’s domestic data protection regime.

It took Cathay Pacific seven months to report the incident, although it was under no legal obligation to do so at all. The privacy commissioner was also powerless to levy fines. The only option was an enforcement notice citing violation of privacy laws and an order that the firm improved its cybersecurity posture.

Even if the airline had failed to comply with the order, it would only have faced a fine of HK $50,000 ($6433).

The Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China is looking to update its privacy laws in line with the GDPR, to include major fines levied in the future as a percentage of global turnover.

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