• The ICO has fined British Airways £20 million for breach of the GDPR in relation to its 2018 data breach.
  • This is a significant reduction in the original proposed fine of £183 million.
  • In the monetary penalty notice issued to British Airways, the ICO has confirmed that the reduction of almost 90% was only partially influenced by the effects of COVID-19 on the financial position of British Airways.
  • In contrast, the vast majority of the reduction appears to come as a result of the ICO having taken into account BA’s representations following its notice of intent, combined with a change of approach by the ICO which meant less of a focus on turnover as the driving factor in calculating fines.
  • The ICO has also published details of the specific GDPR infringements committed by British Airways which have been limited to breach of the integrity and confidentiality principle in Article 5 and the security obligations in Article 32 GDPR.
  • The moral of the story appears to be that it can be commercially worthwhile for controllers to push back robustly against any notice of intent.



As we reported here, in July 2019 the Information Commissioner’s Office (“ICO”) published a notice of its intent to fine British Airways a staggering £183 million for infringement of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a result of its 2018 data breach where the personal data of around 500,000 British Airways customers was stolen by hackers.

Importantly, this was a notice of intent and not a final concluded fine. The Data Protection Act 2018 sets a strict deadline of six months for the ICO to convert this into a fine, although this period may be extended if the ICO and the proposed recipient of the fine agree to an extension. Multiple times the ICO and British Airways took advantage of this extension mechanism so that the final Penalty Notice was only published on 16 October 2020, more than a year after the initial notice of intent.

At the time, no reasons for any of the extensions were offered by either side, although it was understood from International Airline Group’s (IAG, British Airway’s parent company) Annual Report and Accounts 2019, and has now been confirmed by the final Penalty Notice, that British Airways made extensive representations to the ICO regarding the proposed fine and that there were multiple further information requests. The impact of COVID-19 also likely had its part to play in the extension.

At the time of the initial notice of intent, the proposed British Airways fine was touted as the first ‘mega fine’ to be issued by a European data regulator since the implementation of the GDPR. The biggest data protection fine previously issued by the ICO was £500,000, the maximum possible under the old legislation.

The first GDPR ‘mega’ fine: not so ‘mega’: a reduction of almost 90%

The ICO finally issued its Penalty Notice to British Airways on 16 October 2020, fining British Airways £20 million. While still the largest ICO fine to date, this is a significant reduction of almost 90% from the original figure of £183.39 million.

Although the Penalty Notice refers in a couple of places to the original intended fine of £183.39 million, very little is said in the notice regarding why exactly, the final fine has been reduced by such a significant amount. Instead, the notice effectively appears to start from scratch in calculating the final level of fine, taking into account the following factors in accordance with Article 83 GDPR and the ICO’s Regulatory Action Policy:

  • Financial Gain: BA did not gain any financial benefit or avoid any losses directly or indirectly as a result of the breach.
  • Nature and Gravity: The ICO considered the nature of the failures to be serious, affecting a significant number of individuals for a significant period of time (103 days).
  • Culpability: Although the breach was a not an intentional or deliberate act on the part of BA, the ICO found BA to be negligent.
  • Responsibility: The ICO found BA to be wholly responsible for the breaches of Articles 5 and 32 GDPR.
  • Previous Actions: BA had no relevant previous infringements or failures to comply with past notices.
  • Cooperation: BA fully cooperated with the ICO’s investigation.
  • Categories of Personal Data: Although no special category data was affected, the nature of the data, in particular payment card data, was nonetheless sensitive.
  • Notification: BA acted promptly in notifying the ICO of the attack.

Taking into account all of these factors above, the ICO considered that a penalty of £30 million would be appropriate starting point to reflect the seriousness of the breach, and the need for the penalty to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive in the context of BA’s scale and turnover. So far, there is no obvious reason why the fine is so much lower than the notice of intent.

The ICO did not consider there to be any aggravating factors to apply in order to increase the penalty and further did not consider it necessary to increase the penalty in order for it to be ‘dissuasive’.

Turning to any potential downwards adjustment, the ICO considered a 20% downwards adjustment (£6 million) to be appropriate, taking into account various mitigating factors, including:

  • The immediate steps to mitigate and minimise any damage to data subjects;
  • BA’s prompt notification of the breach to data subjects and relevant regulatory authorities;
  • The broad press coverage as a result of the attached will have likely raised awareness with other controllers of potential risks; and
  • The adverse effect on BA’s brand and reputation.

Finally, the ICO also explicitly acknowledged that the impact of COVID-19 on British Airways was taken into account when determining the level of the final fine, although this only accounted for a further £4 million downwards adjustment and does not therefore account for the vast majority of the reduction.

Details of the GDPR infringements

In its final Penalty Notice, the ICO focussed on BS’s breach of Article 5(1)(f) GDPR – the integrity and confidentiality principle – and Article 32 GDPR – security of processing. The previous notice of intent, had also found BA to be in breach of Article 25 GDPR – data protection by design and by default – but this was dropped in the final Penalty Notice.

From a penalty perspective, it is also interesting that the ICO rejected BA’s claims that the maximum fine should be 2% because of the conflict between breach of Article 5 (attracting a maximum 4% fine) and breach of Article 32 (attracting a maximum 2% fine) meaning that the principal of lex specialis should apply with the specific provision of Article 32 overriding the general provision of Article 5. The ICO instead found that the two provisions were distinct even if they did overlap, although it is fair to note that it made no difference in the context of the level of fine imposed in the end (which was significantly less than both 4% and 2% of annual worldwide turnover).

With respect to its security obligations, the ICO found that British Airways had “weaknesses in its security” that could have been prevented with security systems, procedures and software that were available at the time. None of the measures would have entailed excessive cost or technical barriers for British Airways, with some available through the Microsoft Operating System used by British Airways. Some of the numerous measures British Airways could have used to mitigate or prevent the risk of the attack include:

  • limiting access to applications, data and tools to only that which are required to fulfil a user’s role;
  • undertaking rigorous testing, in the form of simulating a cyber-attack, on the business’ systems; and
  • protecting employee and third party accounts with multi-factor authentication, external public IP address whitelisting, and IPSec VPN.

The attack path that the hackers used in the ICO’s view exposed a number of failings on the part of British Airways. The hackers were able to gain access to an internal British Airways application through the use of compromised credentials for a Citrix remote access gateway. The hackers were then able to break out of the Citrix environment and could then gain broader access to the wider British Airways network. Once there, the attacker was able to move laterally across the network, culminating in the editing of a Javascript file on British Airway’s website. This allowed the attacker to intercept and exfiltrate cardholder data from British Airway’s website to an external third-party domain which was controlled by the attacker.

One particular area of focus for the ICO was British Airway’s practice of storing credentials within batch scripts. The ICO did not accept British Airway’s submissions that this “aided functionality” or was “standard practice” and stuck to its position that this was not acceptable and there were other secure ways to achieve the same objectives.

As a result, the ICO was “satisfied that BA failed to put in place appropriate technical or organisational measures to protect the personal data being processed on its systems, as required by the GDPR“.

What is next?

British Airways must pay the fine to the ICO or exercise its right to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal in the General Regulatory Chamber within 28 days of the Penalty Notice. Interestingly, the Penalty Notice does not refer to the availability of any further discount for prompt payment, with such discount usually being lost if the fine is appealed. This may normally suggest that BA has agreed to settle with the ICO, although the Penalty Notice is clear that BA does not admit liability for breach of the GDPR.

There is also the potential that British Airways could face a fine or reprimand under the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) in relation to its collection and processing of payment card data. PCI-DSS compliance is required by all organisations which accept, process, store and/or transmit debit and credit cards. However, fines under PCI-DSS are not publicly available so it is unlikely it will be public knowledge if a PCI-DSS fine is levied against British Airways.

In conclusion, this is perhaps not the first ‘mega fine’ or tough GDPR enforcement from the ICO that commentators were expecting, but it is still a step in that direction and with some interesting guidance regarding the way in which the ICO may approach the calculation of fines (and enforcement more generally) in the future.

Andrew Moir
Andrew Moir
Partner, Global Head of Cyber and Data Security
+44 20 7466 2773
Miriam Everett
Miriam Everett
Partner, Head of Data Protection and Privacy
+44 20 7466 2378
Chloe Kite
Chloe Kite
Associate, Digital TMT, Sourcing and Data
+44 20 7466 2540
Elena Hogg
Elena Hogg
Associate, Cyber and Data Security
+44 20 7466 2590