The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) £200,000 for data protection failings that led to its website being hacked and personal information on thousands of people exposed.
In 2012, hacker James Jeffrey was sentenced to 32 months in prison for stealing the personal details of 10,000 women from BPAS, the UK’s largest abortion services provider. After Jeffrey’s arrest, the site continued to be subjected to thousands of hacking attempts.
The ICO investigation found that on 8 March 2012, a hacker used an automated tool to identify vulnerabilities in the BPAS website to gain unauthorised access to its content management system (CMS). BPAS were alerted to the incident when staff noticed that the hacker had defaced the website.
Using the access to the CMS, the hacker was also able to find contact details - including name and date of birth - of people who had used the website and filled in a form to request a call back for advice, because the website retained a copy of the details of about 9,900 individuals unnecessarily.
He threatened to publish this personal information publicly, but was not able to do so after BPAS filed an injunction to prevent it.
The ICO investigation revealed that BPAS did not have proper oversight of its website.
It had instructed an IT company to develop its website in 2007, initially to include an online appointment booking service, which involved a call back. BPAS decided not to install this feature mainly due to concerns over data security, and it assumed that the CMS that was consequently developed would just generate an email when the form was filled out, that would be sent to a secure email server with no call back data being retained on the website.
However, a year later, “due to concerns about the IT company’s performance”, BPAS hired another IT firm to host the website. However, it did not realise that the firm was processing the call back data, and it therefore BPAS did not ensure that administrative passwords were stored securely or that high standards of communication confidentiality were met. Moreover, it kept personal details for five years longer than it needed to.
BPAS also failed to carry out appropriate security testing on the website, which would have highlighted the vulnerabilities that allowed the hacker to gain access in the first place.
Although the organisation has now removed the call back details from the website and taken “substantial” remedial action to prevent such a security breach from occurring again, the ICO has deemed the incident serious enough to warrant a £200,000 fine. The maximum penalty the ICO can issue over a Data Protection Act breach is currently £500,000.
David Smith, deputy commissioner and director of data protection, said: “The British Pregnancy Advice Service didn’t realise their website was storing this information, didn’t realise how long it was being retained for and didn’t realise the website wasn’t being kept sufficiently secure.
“But ignorance is no excuse. It is especially unforgiveable when the organisation is handing information as sensitive as that held by the BPAS.”