Keeping Your Data Safe
Gulf Business|June 2018

From Facebook to GDPR, 2018 has been an important year for data protection. We look at why data breaches are in the public eye, and what the region is doing to safeguard your private details.

Neil King

When Mark Zuckerberg appeared before US senators in April to face questions about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal – in which the personal information of up to 87 million users was harvested without their permission – the spotlight was shone more brightly than ever before on the issue of data security.

Fending off the sometimes probing, sometimes confused questions one by one, the billionaire CEO largely survived the grilling, but the mere fact he was there at all added fuel to a growing fire.

Data breaches are nothing new. Whether targeted by hackers, the result of poor security or lost computers, accidentally published, or part of an inside job, people’s data has always been at risk since the dawn of the technology age.

The stark reminders of this have been periodic. In 2005, some 92 million records were compromised as the result of a reported inside job. Two years later, TK/TJ Maxx saw 94 million compromised records, followed by Sony PlayStation’s 77 million in 2010. 

Yahoo saw an astonishing 3 billion user accounts stolen in 2013, and a year later 145 million Ebay records suffered a similar fate. As did 76 million records from JP Morgan Chase in 2014, 80 million from Anthem in 2015, and 145 million Equifax accounts in 2017.

No sector is immune, and as technology continues to grow and develop, so do the chances of data attacks. Market intelligence firm, International Data Corporation (IDC), has predicted that by 2020 more than 1.5 billion people worldwide will be affected by data breaches. Meanwhile, in its 2017 Data Breach Level Index, digital security firm Gemalto noted that the number of data records compromised in publicly disclosed data breaches surpassed 2.5 billion – up 88 per cent from 2016. This equates to more than 7 million records lost or stolen every day, or 82 every second.

With less than 1 per cent of the total incidents, according to Gemalto’s findings, the Middle East region is certainly not a hotspot for data breaches, but events of 2018 have already proven that it is far from safe.

In April, Dubai-based ride-hailing app Careem announced that it had experienced a breach in January this year, compromising the data of 14 million users. In previous years, breaches have been reported at Al Zahra Private Medical Centre, Etihad Airways and dubizzle, among others. 

Back in 2016, statistics from the UAE’s then new Cyber Security Centre showed that the country was the second most targeted country in the world for cyberattacks – sandwiched by the US and Spain in first and third position. So despite the relatively low data breach-rate, the potential for breaches remains high – especially as hackers, attackers and threat actors become more sophisticated.

Confronting challenges 

The challenges are manifold, but the region has gone to great lengths to keep data safe and continues to not only maintain state-of-the-art security strategies, but also keep businesses aware of the pressing need to safeguard people’s data.

Amir Kanaan, managing director – Middle East, Turkey and Africa for Kaspersky Lab – believes the recent Facebook scandal has been a key contributor to that recognition.

“It has resulted in heightened awareness, and I do hope businesses in the region take this opportunity to rethink their attitude and approach towards data security,” he says. 

“Seeing the response to the issue by a number of national governments, there will be a move towards more stringent operational guidelines and regulatory frameworks for international companies that primarily deal with data.”

Even before the Facebook news broke, regional governments have been proactive in bolstering their own security levels, as well as advising private businesses to do the same.

In January this year, for example, the UAE’s Ministry of Finance marked Data Privacy Day by issuing a reminder of the importance of protecting personal data for financial transactions. And as well as the obvious concern for people’s privacy, the ministry’s undersecretary Younis Haji Al Khouri highlighted the economic importance behind it.

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