Navigating the data breach vendor blame game

Pointing the finger at others during an incident or crisis is a tempting proposition. It diverts attention, helps the company avoid responsibility, and means it doesn’t have to address the underlying problem.

At least, that’s the idea.

Playing the blame game can be appropriate when your company is clearly not guilty. However, in most other instances it convinces almost nobody, leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and encourages regulators to come down extra hard.

Some of the more notorious examples include BP CEO Tony Hayward blaming oil rig owner Transocean for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Costa Concordia CEO Pier Luigi Foschi fingering lower-level employees for the collision of his eponymous ship off the Italian coast.

More recently, United Airlines CEO blamed ‘disruptive and belligerent’ customer David Dao for the violent melee initiated by security personnel aboard flight 3411.

Now we are seeing a rash of finger-pointing at vendors during data breaches.

In some ways, this is the nature of the data privacy beast.

The inter-connected nature of IT systems and the widespread sharing of data means companies are now more exposed than ever to data breaches, leaks and losses due to poor security or inappropriate employee behaviour at their suppliers, partners or others.

And then GDPR forces data privacy incidents into the public arena, and increases the likelihood of media slanging matches.

Over the past few days, a breach at B2B survey company Typeform resulted in the loss of data of 20,000 or so customers of multiple organisations, including the LibDems, Travelodge, Fortnum & Mason, and digital bank Monzo. The breach led to Monzo publicly terminating its relationship with the survey firm until it sorts out its security.

And we have seen Ticketmaster blame customer support vendor Inbenta for a breach of up to 40,000 of its customers’ data (see below), to which Inbenta fired back that the source of the breach lay was a piece of JavaScript code that had been incorrectly implemented by the ticketing company.

Ticketmaster on the Inbenta data breach

Whichever firm was at fault for the Ticketmaster incident (something we will have a clearer view of when the ICO completes its investigation), it is hardly reassuring for customers of either party.

That said, things look bleak for Ticketmaster after Monzo revealed it had warned Ticketmaster of a possible breach weeks ago, publishing a compelling graphic to make its case.

Monzo on Ticketmaster data breach timeline

Here are 5 tips for handling third-party data breach incidents involving suppliers or partners from a communications perspective:
  1. Acknowledge the issue quickly, and take responsibility. While technically, and legally, the fault for the breach may ultimately lie with your vendor or partner, your customers care little about how your business back-end works and want ownership of the problem and its speedy resolution. They expect this from you as your customer. Ticketmaster might usefully have considered how airlines manage lost baggage: direct with the customer, with the airport manager in the background, rather than vice-versa, even if the airport is at fault.
  2. Take the moral high ground. Being honest, open, concerned and helpful from the get-go will go a long way towards defusing a tricky situation, and will mean your customers, suppliers and partners have less reason to carp about the state of your security or the nature of your communications. Ticketmaster got off on the wrong foot by apparently unfairly fingering Inbenta, and trying to appear as the hero of the hour, while failing to mention that it had been warned months previously about a possible breach.
  3. Resist directly naming your supplier/partner. Following on from the previous point, you may find it tempting to point the finger at a partner or supplier – an apparently reasonable thing to do when it appears to be at fault. But the facts may not quite turn out as you expect, and you risk being seen as appearing high-handed or vindictive, especially if it is a smaller entity. Instead, resist naming the guilty party until the facts are clear, and then be careful do so in a manner and tone appropriate to the misdemeanour.
  4. Reinforce your position when tempers have cooled. Public slanging matches are always ugly and do few organisations any good. Nonetheless, that’s not to say you may still need to pursue your interests aggressively, it’s just that this is usually best done once the initial drama of an incident dies down. At this point, you can publish the investigatory report you may have commissioned, and await any regulatory statement, or prosecution. If necessary, contest in court.
  5. Understand your reputational ecosystem. On the surface, online surveys and ticket sales have been – and remain – fairly mundane and transactional industries. But business ecosystems are changing fast, and transparency has become a strategic battleground. Banks – often the real losers when it comes to data breaches (Monzo’s CEO went on the record to say that the Ticketmaster breach led to ‘quite a big financial loss’ for the bank) – are generally happy to sit in the shadows while an incident plays out in the media. But Monzo prides itself on its transparency, and is prepared to use it defensively as well as strategically. Understanding the reputational nuances of your business ecosystem, including your suppliers’ and partners’ pain thresholds, will help you make the right decisions when things get choppy.

 

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