Companies “over-reporting” data breaches as ICO takes 500 calls per week

The exterior of the ICO's offices
(Image credit: The Information Commissioner's Office)

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) revealed it has been receiving 500 reports by telephone per week since GDPR came into force, a third of which are considered to be unnecessary or fail to meet the threshold for a data incident.

ICO deputy commissioner James Dipple-Johnstone revealed that misconceptions are still commonplace among organisations more than three months after GDPR came into force, leading to a large number of needless calls to the regulator.

Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI's) fourth annual Cyber Security Conference, he added that one mistake many businesses make is to believe that the mandatory reporting period is 72 'working' hours, whereas, in reality, this is 72 hours from the point of discovery.

Many reports the ICO receive are also incomplete, and many tend to "over-report" due to an inflated desire to be transparent, because organisations want to manage their perceived risk, or just think they need to report everything.

The update comes a fortnight after the law firm EMW obtained figures via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that showed the number of the complaints between 25 May and 3 July this year climbed to 6,281 versus just 2,417 during the same period last year.

"We understand this will be an issue in the early months of a new system," Dipple-Johnstone continued, "but we will be working with organisations to try and discourage this in future once we are all more familiar with the new threshold."

In addition to the update, the ICO was keen to allay any fears that regulator was trigger-happy when it came to issuing fines.

"The small number of fines we issue always seem to get the headlines, but we close many thousands of incidents each year without financial penalty but with advice, guidance and reassurance," he said.

"For every investigation which ends in a fine, we have dozens of audits, advisory visits and guidance sessions. That is the real norm of the work we do."

Although fines of 20 million (or 4% of global annual turnover) are on the table under GDPR, the ICO has repeatedly said in the past it would not simply scale up the 500,000 maximum fine under the Data Protection Act 1998.

Dipple-Johnstone added that businesses that take their data protection responsibilities seriously "have nothing to fear from an ICO inspection or investigation".

Where headline-grabbing fines may be issued are instances where organisations show poor board-level awareness, have incomplete or missing records, have not trained staff, and have continuously deferred security investment among other factors. In fact, in the three months since GDPR, the ICO said it had already found evidence in some reports of a lack of preparation, or an unwillingness on the part of senior leadership to disclose sensitive information to blame for uncooperative breach notifications.

Approximately half of the calls the ICO receives each week involve a cyber element, while a third have involve phishing attacks.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.