Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Compliance lessons to learn from the 2017 Equifax cybersecurity breach

Equifax is one of the major US-based consumer credit reporting agencies. It operates globally and due to their nature of its business, maintains sensitive and personal information on more than 800 million individuals and more than 80 million organizations.

In September 2017, Equifax announced that it had experienced a cybersecurity intrusion in July 2017 which impacted the data of up to 200 million consumers from the US, Canada, and the UK. The handling of this breach by Equifax was widely criticized and questioned. Among the controversial aspects of it were the two month delay in publicizing it, the lack of specific information about the data compromised, the inadequate and possibly even unsafe system and support provided for impacted consumers, and the perception of possible insider trading by company executives in the days after the breach took place but before it was public.

As the problematic response to this cybersecurity incident unfolded, Equifax’s various blunders and missteps in the public handling of the situation formed a guide for worst practices in such a scenario. As the dialog around Equifax’s response has shown, poor crisis management in the public eye only compounds the consumer protection problems.

  • Companies do often have legitimate reasons for delaying notifying consumers, regulators, and the public at large about data breaches. Sometimes companies do not even know they have been breached right away. Even once they are aware, sometimes law enforcement will request that they do not disclose the breach. Different types of data may be subject to different disclosure requirements, so companies also sometimes have to take time to determine what data was involved. However, these delays still can be very problematic for consumers, who can be unknowingly at risk and make assumptions about the seriousness with which their data is stored and maintained which might be very far from reality.  Why it can take so long for companies to reveal their data breaches 
  • While Equifax was taking its time notifying consumers and regulators of the data breach, questions abound about when – and what – people on the inside knew about it. This is because only a few days after the July 29 cybersecurity intrusion, on August 1 and August 2, several executives at Equifax sold shares. These transactions were not part of scheduled trading plans, but they were not total liquidations of their positions, and the company says that the executives were unaware of the breach at the time of the trades. However, the perception of possible insider trading is hard to avoid once the timing of this activity is revealed. If they truly did not know about the cybersecurity problem, it would have been wise at least to inform key senior management of the breach and advise them to avoid trading in the stock while in possession of inside information.  Three Equifax Managers Sold Stock Before Cyber Hack Revealed
  • Despite how secret most people in the US see their financial data as being – especially social security numbers and bank account or credit card information – current privacy laws are lacking in many key areas when compared to those in other parts of the world such as the EU. Top of mind among privacy concerns, including the need for consumers to input personal data to check whether their other personal data has been compromised, is that over a month went by before Equifax notified the public of the cybersecurity incident at all. In the 40 days that went past, the data could have been used for many illicit purposes without consumers even being aware they were at risk. Laws in the US currently differ between states with regards to breach notification requirements. There is no unifying directive in the US for the standard where personal data is concerned, such as there will be next year in the US under the General Data Protection Regulation, which requires notification within a maximum of 72 hours. Perhaps a higher standard in the US such as this one would reinforce seriousness of these events to organizations and improve consumer protection and communication processes when they occur.  Equifax breach disclosure would have failed Europe’s tough new rules
  • While these data breaches are unfortunately becoming so common that the public is often less alarmed by them now than in the past, irresponsible or insufficient responses by organizations to these breach still provoke justifiable outrage and calls for change. Consumers being desensitized to the exposure of their personal data just shows how widespread the problem is and how insufficiently the interests of the consumers are guarded. However exhausted the public may seem to be with the ongoing leaks and hacks of their private data, this is no excuse for organizations affected by them to respond with the same passive, indifferent attitude. Equifax’s lack of detail and inadequate communication displayed to the public that they did not care about the invasion consumers were suffering, which is quite a different message than one of fatigue by victims who have had this experience too many times to excuse. The reputational risk suffered by such corporate carelessness is extreme, and hopefully will drive consumers to advocate for a higher standard of responsibility and responsiveness from keepers of consumer data.  The Banality of the Equifax Breach
  • As the public contends with the reality of the Equifax data breach – that subsequent hacking attempts stemming from this breach are inevitable and that companies like Equifax do not meet the standard of care for protecting this private information in their possession – what can anyone do in the future? Holding companies accountable for their poor service by taking their business elsewhere is often the only choice consumers have to voice their displeasure. In the current system individuals aren’t really able to avoid the consumer credit reporting agencies, but organizations could opt to create and use independent systems with more secure infrastructures. These corporate users could drive a technological shift that would also benefit individual consumers. Blockchain and related technologies could provide the solutions to these vexing and chronic security concerns that the existing system seems unable to address.  It’s time to build our own Equifax with blackjack and crypto

Given the ever-increasing risks surrounding cybersecurity, compliance professionals and individuals interested in cybersecurity risk management can take many cues from the above on what not to do in such a situation from Equifax. Hopefully as organizations continue to live with the risk of such intrusions, and improve their control frameworks to prevent and mitigate them, they also pay attention to the public responses in such situation, to make sure that the statements made and guidance provided are adequate and accurate.