Investigation into MGM breach highlights how to assess risk, and need for timely assessment
PIPEDA Findings #2022-004
19 May 2022
Complaint under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the “Act”)
Report of findings
In February 2020, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (the “OPC”) became aware of media reports regarding a large-scale data breach MGM suffered in 2019. Not having received a breach report on the matter, the OPC engaged with MGM to obtain additional information about the breach and the involvement of any personal information belonging to Canadians.
After receiving confirmation that Canadian personal information was affected by the breach, considering the potential impact on Canadians who were affected but had not yet been notified of the breach, and considering the significant passage of time since MGM’s confirmation of the breach, the Commissioner initiated a complaint to investigateFootnote 1 whether MGM had complied with its mandatory breach reporting obligations under PIPEDA.Footnote 2
Our investigation found that MGM contravened the mandatory breach reporting provisions of PIPEDA. While MGM determined that there was a breach of its security safeguards in the summer of 2019, MGM failed to promptly assess whether the breach posed a real risk of significant harm (“RROSH”) to affected Canadians. We found that the breach posed a RROSH and that MGM did not report the breach to the Privacy Commissioner or notify affected individuals as soon as feasible.
In response to recommendations by our Office, MGM agreed that it would make amendments to its privacy breach response framework or process by 30 June 2022, to ensure that where MGM learns of a breach that may involve personal information of Canadian residents: (a) MGM will promptly conduct a RROSH assessment, consistent with the OPC’s published guidance; and if MGM determines that such a breach gives rise to a RROSH, MGM will, as soon as feasible (b) provide a report to the Privacy Commissioner, and (c) notify affected individuals.
We therefore find the matter to be well-founded and conditionally resolved.
Background and Complaint
- MGM Resorts International (“MGM”) is a U.S.-based entity that owns and operates a number of hotels and casinos located in the United States. MGM frequently interacts with its Canadian customer base through its marketing activities, online reservations, and partnerships with Canadian organizations such as Air Canada Vacations, Cirque du Soleil, and Canadian Automobile Association.
- In February 2020, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (the “OPC”) became aware of media reportsFootnote 3 regarding the publication of personal information of about 10.6 million MGM guests on a “hacking” forum. Per these reports, the information appeared to include names, contact details, dates of birth and for about 1,300 individuals, certain identification numbers (driver’s licenses, passports or military ID cards). In these media reports, MGM also confirmed that a breach occurred during the summer of 2019 and that it had contacted all impacted hotel guests in accordance with state laws.
- As the OPC had not received a breach report from MGM at that time, the OPC contacted MGM in February 2020 to obtain additional information about the breach and the involvement of any personal information belonging to Canadians.
- MGM explained that, based on its investigation of the breach, it determined that on approximately 7 July 2019, an unauthorized third party gained access to an external cloud server containing certain MGM guest data. The unauthorized actor was able to gain access by logging into a third-party platform used by MGM software developers, using an MGM employee’s credentials (which had been compromised in a previous data breach, not associated with MGM – a credential stuffing attack) and exploiting a coding flaw (on that third-party platform) to bypass multi-factor authentication. Subsequently, the unauthorized actor identified a temporary access token that they used to access MGM guest data on an external cloud server. The token allowed the attacker to gain access to the database for approximately one hour. During that time, the attacker ex-filtrated a data set containing certain MGM guest data. The attacker then offered it for sale online. MGM claimed that in the online sale offer, the attacker said that the data set had little value due to its poor condition. MGM did not offer any corroborative evidence to substantiate this.
- MGM further explained that it became aware of the online sale posting on or about 10 July 2019, and at that time, MGM engaged a “leading third-party data security expert” and an “e-discovery expert”, to conduct a forensic investigation and assist in MGM’s efforts to understand and assess the incident and the affected data. With the assistance of these third-party experts, MGM took steps to ensure that the unauthorized party no longer had access to the MGM guest data on its external cloud server. After consulting with U.S. law enforcement, MGM also purchased a copy of the data set from the attacker on 24 July 2019, in return for the vendor’s agreement to remove the posting.Footnote 4 MGM claimed, based on work with its third-party consultants, that the impacted data set was in poor condition and not readily useable.
- After the OPC contacted MGM in February 2020, MGM commenced further analysis and later confirmed that 1,934,090 Canadians were affected; including 5,635 Canadians whose government identifier (e.g., passport number, Nexus number, health card number, military identification number) was compromised. At this time, in late April 2020, MGM advised that it would be notifying affected Canadians imminently.
- Additionally, in its breach report to the OPC on 3 June 2020, MGM explained what remedial measures had been implemented to protect against a similar breach occurring in future and against potential harm to affected individuals. These measures included, but were not limited to, the third-party platform’s remediation of the coding flaw, access control enhancements by MGM (e.g., expanding MGM’s use of multi-factor authentication, prohibiting MGM software developers from using personal email addresses for MGM-related work, and ensuring accounts are provisioned on the principle of least privilege) and offering credit monitoring to affected individuals.
- Given the potential impact on Canadians whose government identifiers were affected (but had not yet been notified of the breach), and considering the significant passage of time between MGM’s confirmation of the breach and MGM’s assessment of the breach with respect to Canadians, the Commissioner initiated a complaint to investigateFootnote 5 whether MGM had adequately complied with its mandatory breach reporting obligations under PIPEDA.Footnote 6 Our investigation focused on the impact on Canadians.
- We note that MGM submitted a breach report to the OPC, and commenced notifying affected Canadians, on 3 June 2020. MGM completed notifying affected Canadians on 17 July 2020.
Issue: Whether MGM had the obligation to report the breach to the OPC and notify affected Canadians and if so, whether it did so as soon as feasible
- To ensure that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and all affected individuals are aware of, and receive consistent information about, data breaches that pose a real risk of significant harm, PIPEDA provides for mandatory breach reporting, under section 10.1, for organizations that experience a data breach (referred to in PIPEDA as a “breach of security safeguards”).Footnote 7
- Where an organization has experienced a breach of its security safeguards, it will need to assess whether that breach creates a real risk of significant harm (“RROSH”) to any affected individual. If it is reasonable to believe in the circumstances that the breach poses a RROSH to an individual, PIPEDA requires the organization to report that breach to the Privacy Commissioner.Footnote 8 Additionally, the organization must notify any affected individual of the breach, unless otherwise prohibited by law, in order to allow these individuals to take steps, if any are possible, to reduce or mitigate the risk of harm that could result from the breach.Footnote 9 In both cases, the organization must report and notify of the breach as soon as feasible after the organization determines that the breach has occurred.Footnote 10
- Considering the above, our analysis focused on whether the breach sustained by MGM in 2019 met the RROSH threshold, and whether MGM reported the breach to the OPC and notified affected Canadians as soon as feasible.
Sub-Issue 1: Whether the MGM breach met the RROSH reporting and notification threshold
- Pursuant to subsection 10.1(8) of PIPEDA, the RROSH assessment must consider the sensitivity of the personal information involved in the breach, and the probability that the personal information has been, is being, or will be, misused. In our view, as detailed below, the information at issue is sensitive and the probability of its misuse in the circumstances of the breach is sufficiently high, such that the breach meets the RROSH threshold.
Sensitivity of the personal information
- The first RROSH assessment factor is the sensitivity of the personal information involved in the breach. While PIPEDA does not define sensitivity, Principle 4.3.4 of PIPEDA states that “[a]lthough some information (for example, medical records and income records) is almost always considered to be sensitive, any information can be sensitive, depending on the context.” In this case, we found the personal information involved in the breach to be sensitive.
- In response to the OPC’s request for information about its risk assessment, MGM submitted that there was no RROSH to affected Canadian residents, given “the poor and disorganized state of the data, the possibility of the relevant information being expired or invalid, and the non-sensitive nature (with the exception of government-issued ID numbers) of the data in the affected records”.
- First, the government-issued identifiers for 5,635 affected Canadians represent sensitive information, as these can be very useful in the context of fraud and identity theft.
- As for the remaining personal information involved in the breach, these details (names, dates of birth, phone number, email address, and full/partial residence address) may not be sensitive in isolation. However, in our view, they can hold a higher level of sensitivity when combined with other personal information and/or when the circumstances of a breach increase the potential for the information to be used in a manner that could cause harm to affected individuals.
- In this case, the sensitivity of the remaining personal information is heightened when attached to a government-issued identifier. Additionally, we note that the information was posted for sale to malicious actors on a hacking forum on the dark web, which could result in misuse of the information for harmful activities such as identity fraud, financial harm, and phishing.Footnote 11
- We therefore consider the Canadian personal information breached to be sensitive.
Probability of misuse
- The second RROSH assessment factor is the probability that the personal information has been, is being, or will be, misused. In this case, we are of the view that the probability of misuse further supports a finding that there is RROSH to affected individuals.
- According to the OPC’s guidance,Footnote 12 it is important to consider factors such as the following when assessing this probability of misuse:
- who accessed (or who could have accessed) the information,
- how long the personal information was exposed,
- whether there is any evidence of malicious intent (e.g. theft, hacking),
- whether the risk of misuse is raised due to a number of pieces of personal information being breached,
- whether the information was exposed to individuals/entities who are unknown or to a large number of individuals (where certain individuals might use or share the information in a way that would cause harm),
- whether harm has materialized for any affected individuals,
- whether the personal information has been recovered, and
- whether the personal information was easily accessible (e.g. protected by adequate encryption or anonymization).
- In this case, the unauthorized actor demonstrated malicious intent by hacking into MGM’s external cloud server, ex-filtrating MGM guest data, and attempting to profit from that data by posting it for sale in a hacking forum on the dark web. In this process, the data was exposed to an unknown number of other malicious actors whose purpose for purchasing the data would likely be to misuse the information for harmful activities (e.g., through identity fraud or a phishing attack, as noted earlier in this report).
- We further note a significant number of pieces of personal information were breached, for millions of individuals, increasing the value of that information and the likelihood that it could be misused.
- With respect to the accessibility of the information breached, MGM advised that “the state of the data set was such that it would be extremely challenging for someone without knowledge of the source systems and expertise in data reconstruction to make meaningful use of the data set”. In its view, knowledge of MGM’s source systems was required to understand the information breached.
- However, based on the OPC’s technical analysis of a sample of the data set provided by MGM, we found that it would be possible for a malicious actor to, without significant time or effort, organize the data into a form that allows identification of the personal information contained therein. In fact, our Office’s own technical analysts were able to do so. As such, we found the information to be reasonably accessible.
- While MGM advised that it had no evidence to suggest harm had materialized for any of the affected individuals, the data could have been misused in a way that MGM has not yet detected or could be misused in future. Notably, while MGM obtained a copy of the data set in July 2019, on the understanding that the online posting would be removed, the data set reappeared for sale on the dark web in February 2020.
- Given the sensitivity of the information in question, and the potential for it to be misused by malicious actors, we find that this breach created a RROSH to affected Canadians, such that MGM was required to report the breach to our Office, and notify affected individuals in Canada.
Sub-Issue 2: Whether MGM notified the OPC and affected Canadians as soon as feasible
- MGM advised that on 4 August 2019, following reconstruction of the data set, it was able to identify specific information in the affected records. MGM began notifying certain affected U.S. guests and privacy regulators on 5 September 2019.
- However, MGM did not commence reconstruction and analysis of the affected data set, with respect to data of Canadians, until 28 February 2020. MGM then reported the breach to our Office on 3 June 2020, and commenced notifying affected Canadians on the same day, almost 11 months after MGM had become aware of the breach. MGM confirmed that it completed notifying affected Canadian residents on 17 July 2020. In our view, it would have been feasible for MGM to act sooner.
- The OPC acknowledges that it can often take weeks or months to completely investigate and confirm the scope of a breach. However, this case is not a question of whether MGM took too long to analyze the data, determine that 1.9 million Canadians were affected and conduct its RROSH assessment. MGM did not even start any such assessment until almost six months after it began notifying affected U.S. guests and privacy regulators; and this was only after the OPC contacted MGM about media reports regarding the breach. In our view, MGM should have commenced analysis of the data vis-à-vis impact on Canadians concurrent with its analysis in relation to its U.S. guests.
- If MGM had commenced its analysis of the data vis-à-vis Canadians immediately, as it did with respect to Americans, it could have conducted its RROSH analysis sooner, and been in a position to notify affected Canadians many months earlier than June-July 2020. We therefore find MGM to have been in contravention of section 10.1 of PIPEDA in that MGM did not report the 2019 breach to the OPC and did not notify affected Canadian residents as soon as feasible.
- In response to a recommendation by our Office, and with a view to complying with its obligations under Section 10.1 of PIPEDA, MGM committed to, by 30 June 2022, amend its privacy breach response framework to ensure that in circumstances where MGM learns of a breach that may involve personal information of Canadian residents:
- MGM will promptly conduct an appropriate assessment as to whether such breach gives rise to a RROSH, consistent with applicable published guidance of the OPC;Footnote 13 and
- if MGM determines that such breach gives rise to a RROSH, MGM will, in accordance with s. 10.1 of PIPEDA:
- provide a report, as soon as feasible, to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada; and,
- notify, as soon as feasible, the relevant individuals affected by such breach.
- We also recommended, and MGM agreed, to provide, by 30 June 2022 a report and associated documentary evidence to our Office to establish that it has complied with its commitment to amend its privacy breach response framework.
- Given that MGM has now reported the breach and notified affected Canadians, and considering MGM’s commitments as detailed above, we consider this matter to be well-founded and conditionally resolved.
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