Understanding data breaches under GDPR

In the current environment of the World Wide Web, data breaches have been realised by corporates as well as individual people. They can result from various factors, from simple human error up to advanced cyber-attacks. Regardless of the culprit, the effects could be harmful for instance, if an entity breaches the UK’s General Data Protection Regulations (UK GDPR)’s mandates.

How do data breaches happen?

Data breaches can occur through multiple approaches, each presenting its own set of risks and challenges. Here are some common causes:

1. Cyber-attacks: Sophisticated hackers target organisations to gain unauthorised access to sensitive data. These attacks can take various forms, including malware, phishing, and ransomware, exploiting vulnerabilities in software or network infrastructure.

2. Human error: Employees may negligently expose data through actions like misaddressed emails, improper disposal of sensitive documents, or falling victim to social engineering scams. Even well-intentioned actions, such as sharing passwords or accessing data from unsecured networks, can lead to breaches.

3. Insider threats: Employees or trusted individuals with access to sensitive information may abuse their privileges for personal gain. This could involve stealing data, leaking information, or intentionally causing system disruption.

4. Third-party vulnerabilities: Outsourcing certain functions, such as cloud storage or payment processing, can introduce additional risks if proper security measures are not enforced by third-party vendors.

Consequences of GDPR Violations

The UK GDPR aims to protect the personal data and privacy of individuals. When a data breach occurs and GDPR rules are violated, the repercussions can be significant:

1. Financial penalties: Organisations found in breach of GDPR can face fines of up to £17.5 million or 4% of their global annual turnover, whichever is higher. The severity of the penalty depends on various factors, including the nature, duration, and scale of the violation. For example, the ICO fined TikTok £12.7 million for the misuse of 1.4 million UK children’s personal data.

2. Reputational damage: Data breaches can damage an organisation’s reputation and destroy trust among customers, partners, and stakeholders. The negative publicity resulting from a breach can have long-term consequences, impacting customer retention, brand loyalty, and business opportunities. The average fall in share value following a data breach is around 7.5 % (Bitglass, 2019), which does not include the direct costs to rectify the breach.

3. Legal liabilities: Beyond monetary fines, companies may face legal action from affected individuals or regulatory authorities seeking compensation for damages resulting from the breach. This could lead to costly lawsuits, settlements, or court-mandated remedies, further exacerbating the financial impact.

4. Operational disruption: Dealing with the aftermath of a data breach requires significant resources and effort. From conducting forensic investigations to notifying affected individuals and implementing remedial measures, organisations may experience operational disruptions and productivity losses.

5. Ongoing compliance obligations: Following a data breach, organisations are obligated to report the incident to the relevant supervisory authority without undue delay and at least within 72 hours of becoming aware of the breach. Failure to comply with reporting requirements can result in additional penalties.


Data breaches represent a threat in today’s digital landscape, with far-reaching consequences for organisations and individuals alike. Understanding the causes of breaches, whether through cyberattacks, human error, insider threats, or third-party vulnerabilities, is essential for implementing effective preventive measures and response strategies. By prioritising data security, implementing powerful safeguards, and fostering a culture of awareness and accountability, businesses can mitigate the risks associated with data breaches and uphold the trust and confidence of their stakeholders.

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