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Friday, 10 August 2018 08:30

PageUp silence shows why Australian data breach law is useless

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PageUp silence shows why Australian data breach law is useless Pixabay

It has taken less than six months for the Australian data breach legislation to be shown up as an eyewash, with the data breach at human resource company PageUp People illustrating the shortcomings of the law which some had hailed as being akin to the second coming.

PageUp People has been silent about the breach since 19 June, having announced it publicly on 6 June. The company published information about the breach on its website, and then quietly published further information on a different page without linking from the old site.

How can the public know whether it is safe to deal with the organisation or not? No company that uses PageUp's services discloses that fact when someone applies for a job. The data breach notification provisions were supposed to make the public feel safer.

A tech consultant, Ian Brightwell, informed  iTWire last month about the new information, having been told about by some of the companies that had used PageUp People's services and were informing their clients about the breach.

By now, PageUp must be fully aware of any data leaks that have taken place, as it had engaged security firm Hivint to assist it with incident response co-ordination and security outfit Klein & Co to do the forensics needed.

The extent of access, the time, the destination of data, all could be ascertained by looking at logs. But the company has maintained a studious silence, probably because to speak up would damage its business.

Among PageUp's clients are the Commonwealth Bank. the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Telstra, NAB, Coles, Aldi, Medibank, Australia Post, Target, Reserve Bank of Australia, Officeworks, Kmart, Linfox, AMP, Asahi, Sony, Newcrest, the University of Tasmania, AMP and Lindt.

At least one of these, the ABC, appears to have resumed its use of the company's services, at least for positions it advertises on Seek.

As iTWire has pointed out, PageUp is treating the breach as a public relations disaster and maintaining a low profile in order to try and let the incident disappear from public memory.

But reasoning that there will be no side effect of the data leak just because nothing has happened so far has not held up in other incidents.

For example, the group Linux Australia, which serves as an umbrella organisation for all Linux user groups in the country, suffered a data breach back in 2015.

As recently as 24 July, the president of the organisation, Kathy Reid, posted a message to the group's general mailing list, saying she had received feedback from a member who had been sent a bitcoin/ransomware threat email which used a password that this member had been using circa 2015.

"Their analysis is that this information could only have come from one of two places – a large dump released in 2016 of data taken from LinkedIn, or the Linux Australia breach," Reid wrote.

There have been suggestions that the Australian authorities are aiding PageUp in its mission to play down the breach, in order to set a precedent as this is the first big breach that has received some publicity.

Playing a big role in this "nothing to see here" strategy has been Alastair MacGibbon, the head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, who has been cited as describing PageUp as being effectively "victimised" as a result of having to out itself to Australian customers before it even knew for certain there was a problem.

Helaine Leggat, head of cyber law at Sladen Legal, told iTWire  in response to queries last month that the Department of Home Affairs and other Australian authorities may have decided to practice "security through obscurity".

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, in its quarterly breach report, noted that only one of 242 reported during the April-June quarter had affected up to a million people. This would have to be the PageUp breach.

Though Leggat said there were reasons why this strategy was being adopted, she said that "from a trust and company risk/reputation point of view, one would think that PageUp People would want to communicate more frequently. (I recommend Crisis Communications Policies, among other things)".

One can only hope that some other organisation which requires data breach notification — like the UK Information Commissioner's Office — will ensure that PageUp tells the whole story. Else, maybe some group on the dark web will leak information, forcing PageUp to come clean.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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