Last summer, just over a year after the introduction of GDPR, British Airways was issued with a record-setting $237 million fine for failing to protect its customers’ personal data. But when BA’s appeal period came to an end in January 2020, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) delayed its final decision for several more months.
What’s going on here? Are regulators unwilling to punish companies that play fast and loose with personal data? Should marketers quake at the prospect of gigantic fines, or should they breathe easy knowing that enforcement will be patchy at best?
What the hack happened?
Make no mistake: BA didn’t willingly hand over confidential information to hackers. In fact, its website hadn’t actually been compromised—its ecommerce vendor had. We now know that stringent, real-time tag tracking on BA’s part would have stopped the scheme before it even started… but that’s not what happened. Here’s how it went down:
- The malicious code looked legitimate; in fact, it took three months to detect
- Hackers stole credit card and other sensitive information from an estimated 429,000 customers during this time
This landmark case is complex, multi-layered, and there’s little doubt that hidden tags and code are difficult to diagnose. Nevertheless, website owners are ultimately responsible for end-user protection. British Airways is entirely liable for the breach that occurred via its site, even if it wasn’t directly culpable.
Privacy requires governance
That risk—real and perceived—is the driving force behind a sea change in data privacy, including the inevitable prospect of digital advertising in a cookie-less future. Users are taking control of their data by turning to privacy protection tech (now built into Chrome, Safari, and Firefox), incognito browsing, VPNs, and more. The only way advertisers can win back these hearts and minds is to re-establish their trust.
Take the high road
At a tactical level, marketing decision-makers have to work hand-in-hand with web developers and data analysts to not only deploy the right tech but manage its ongoing usage, including monitoring hidden third-party tags in real time. But most of the hard work ahead is strategic rather than tactical.
In order to respect privacy in the digital age, brands have to do better than pop-up check boxes and empty platitudes about compliance. Privacy has to be built into the customer experience as people begin to understand their data, take greater control of it, and welcome more privacy-focused consumer legislation like the California Consumer Privacy Act—coming into effect on July 1 this year.
It remains to be seen whether or not British Airways actually has to pay its eye-watering $237 million fine (compared to Facebook’s paltry $647,000 pre-GDPR fine for the Cambridge Analytica affair). Either way, its reputation has suffered lasting damage: this is a landmark data breach scandal that will not go quietly into the night sky.
Fortunately, brands that play by the rules—and, more importantly, really mean it—can expect minimal turbulence ahead as they plot a course into a privacy-first digital future. Want to know how? We’ve already laid the groundwork, so let’s talk.