The Irish arm of mobile provider o2 has admitted that back-up tape was lost over a year ago.
In a statement, o2 Ireland said that its IT support partner IBM informed it of the loss of a tape used for routine daily IT back-up work. The tape remains unaccounted for, although o2 admitted that it was ‘in a format which is not accessible to someone trying to access it and requires specialist technology to extract any readable information from it', although it said that it was not encrypted.
It said: “The data on the tape, which relates back to 2011, contained a snapshot of information held on some of O2's own internal company drives at the time. We are not aware of any incident since the tape was misplaced whereby data that might have been on the tape was accessed or used.
“Once o2 was made aware of the incident it immediately launched an investigation to find out what kind of information was on the tape and to verify whether it could be found. o2 also notified the Data Protection Commissioner of the incident and has been working with them closely since.”
It said that it is possible that the tape could contain some personal data but it was more likely that it contained information about o2's normal business affairs and company information. “While the tape has been lost, it is likely still in an o2 building. As a result we believe there is a low risk to customer data privacy,” it said.
“o2 takes data security very seriously and while it believes there is a low risk to customer data privacy as a result of this incident, as a precaution, we are taking this opportunity to inform customers, existing and former.
“o2 sincerely apologises to its customers that the incident in question occurred. We also want to reassure customers that stringent measures have since been taken to ensure such an incident does not happen again.”
Mark Bower, data protection expert and VP at Voltage Security said: “This is exactly why the telecom companies in the EU are required to do more to protect customer data under a number of rules that were introduced a long time ago. In 2002, EU Directive 2002/58/EC – a revision of a 1997 privacy directive required telecom carriers to take measures ‘ensuring personal data is accessed by authorised persons only; protecting personal data from being destroyed, lost or accidentally altered; and ensuring the implementation of a security policy on the processing of personal data'. This was strengthened again in 2008.
“Clearly the conclusion that has to be drawn here is that since the whereabouts of the tape are unknown and the data wasn't protected, the customer data is at risk and there is a question of how telecom companies stand up against the legislation. The risk to customer data here could have been easily mitigated with data-centric security by protecting the data at the source so that it stays protected over its lifecycle – including to backup tapes.
“If the reaction to this is to implement tape encryption, that will be exactly the wrong knee-jerk response. Data goes everywhere today – and any time it's present in a low-trust environment such as cloud, backup, storage, or being transmitted or in use, data protection is critical -- not optional.”
Brian Honan, consultant at BH Consulting, said that the release raised a number issues, such as Why does o2 not know what was on the tape, why was the tape not encrypted and why did it take IBM so long to notify o2 about the loss of the tape?
He said: “Most backup systems have a logfile or record of what data was backed up. It seems strange to me that there is no record as to what data was, and was not, backed up onto the tape.
“Why was the tape not encrypted? Copying data onto a tape means at some stage that data can be read back from the tape. This means anyone with the same type of tape drive and software can restore the data. If that data is not encrypted then anyone with that equipment can restore and read the data. If the data is encrypted then even restoring it from tape makes it unaccessible to those without the proper access.”