Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA)
Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA)
On 3 July 2023, the Information Regulator issued the first administrative fine for POPIA violations and failure to comply with an enforcement notice. This alert considers the key lessons that can be drawn from the fact that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development failed to remedy the information security shortcomings identified by the Information Regulator and is now the first responsible party to be sanctioned for non-compliance.
At a glance
The Information Regulator issues the first fine for a POPIA contravention.
- In May 2023, the Information Regulator found that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJ&CD) had contravened section 19 and 22 of the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (POPIA) based on data breaches in its IT environment in September 2021.
- The Information Regulator then issued an enforcement notice which gave the DoJ&CD opportunity to remedy the shortcomings, discipline the relevant officials and submit proof thereof to the Information Regulator within 31 days.
Don’t ignore an enforcement notice: The Information Regulator issues the first fine for a POPIA contravention
After receiving over 500 notifications of personal information violations and facing criticism for failing to act on reports made by data subjects, the Information Regulator issued an infringement notice and its first administrative fine on 3 July 2023.
In May 2023, the Information Regulator found that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJ&CD) had contravened section 19 and 22 of the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (POPIA) based on data breaches in its IT environment in September 2021. Approximately 1,204 files that contained personal information were lost. After an assessment, the Information Regulator found that the department had failed to renew its security incident and event monitoring, intrusion detection system and Trend antivirus licences which had expired in 2020, and which would have alerted the department to the attempts to access the network had the services been active. Failure to have the required security in place resulted in unauthorised access to the network and the compromising of personal information due to inadequate protection measures.
The Information Regulator then issued an enforcement notice which gave the DoJ&CD opportunity to remedy the shortcomings, discipline the relevant officials and submit proof thereof to the Information Regulator within 31 days. Despite being issued with the notice, the department failed to take the necessary corrective steps and did not submit proof that the issues had been remediated as stipulated before expiry of the notice on 9 June 2023. In fact, the DoJ&CD did not communicate with the Information Regulator. It has now been fined R5 million for failure to comply with the enforcement notice. The department has 30 days from 3 July 2023 to pay the administrative fine, make arrangements with the regulator to pay the administrative fine in instalments, or elect to be tried in court on a charge of having committed an offence in terms of POPIA.
There are lessons for natural and juristic persons to learn from the failures of the DoJ&CD and from the response of the Information Regulator, which has confirmed that there going to be more penalties and administrative fines issued for violations of POPIA.
Personal information must be kept secure
Condition 7 of POPIA, which is part of “Processing of personal information in general”, expounds on the personal information security safeguards that responsible parties have to implement. In section 19, it is stated that:
“Security measures on integrity and confidentiality of personal information
(1) A responsible party must secure the integrity and confidentiality of personal information in its possession or under its control by taking appropriate, reasonable technical and organisational measures to prevent:
(a) loss of, damage to or unauthorised destruction of personal information; and
(b) unlawful access to or processing of personal information.
(2) In order to give effect to subsection (1), the responsible party must take reasonable measures to:
(a) identify all reasonably foreseeable internal and external risks to personal information in its possession or under its control;
(b) establish and maintain appropriate safeguards against the risks identified;
(c) regularly verify that the safeguards are effectively implemented; and
(d) ensure that the safeguards are continually updated in response to new risks or deficiencies in previously implemented safeguards.”
Responsible parties are expected to adhere to accepted information security standards as dictated by the environment and the type of information that must be protected. A risk-based approach is required to identify and measure the adverse activities that could compromise the information that is held by the responsible party. The mitigating actions taken by the responsible party must be appropriate and demonstrable. This will include governance frameworks, technological measures such as security software, the physical securing of data and the requisite employee skills for effective information protection.
The DOJ&CD was found to have acted negligently by failing to ensure that licenses for security software had been renewed and the information in its environment was secure by managing the risk of unauthorised access with adequate control measures. The Information Regulator also stated that the officials who were responsible for ensuring that the correct measures were in place had to be disciplined for their lack of action.
The onus rests on organisations to ensure that the personal information they collect, process and store is secure at all times and not at risk of unauthorised access, misuse or loss. This can be achieved by:
- implementing and maintaining the required effective frameworks, physical and technological safeguards;
- ensuring that officials who are responsible for protecting information have the required skills and tools to achieve security objectives; and
- conducting regular risk assessments to measure the effectiveness of protection measures against current and novel threats.
Notify the Information Regulator if security is compromised or a data breach occurs
If a security compromise, data breach or any unauthorised access of personal information occurs, according to section 22 of POPIA, the responsible party must notify:
- the Information Regulator; and
- the data subject, unless the identity of such data subject cannot be established.
Notifying the Information Regulator is a legislated requirement that is not optional for responsible parties. The responsible party must notify the regulator as soon as reasonably possible after the incident. The Chairperson of the Information Regulator, Adv. Pansy Tlakula, previously stated that all security compromises must be reported, even if the personal information of only one person is involved. The Information Regulator has published the “Guidelines on Section 22 Notification of Security Compromises or Guidelines on Completing Section 22 Security Compromise Notification Form” document which details the process that must be followed for making a report when a data breach occurs. Organisations can access the guidelines online and must follow the clearly defined steps for reporting security compromises.
In this matter, the DoJ&CD failed to report the security compromise to the Information Regulator after it occurred, and the Information Regulator instituted an assessment of the data breach on its own initiative. Serious shortcomings in information security were identified and detailed feedback was provided to the DoJ&CD in the form of an enforcement notice.
Comply with an enforcement notice
An enforcement notice is a statement issued by the Information Regulator stipulating the corrective actions which must be undertaken by a responsible party to rectify shortcomings in the protection of personal information which result in non-compliance with POPIA.
The legislation states that if a responsible party is deemed to have failed to comply with the requirements of POPIA, the Information Regulator may, according to section 95,
“(1) serve the responsible party with an enforcement notice requiring the responsible party to do either or both of the following:
(a) to take specified steps within a period specified in the notice, or to refrain from taking such steps; or
(b) to stop processing personal information specified in the notice, or to stop processing personal information for a purpose or in a manner specified in the notice within a period specified in the notice.”
A responsible party can elect to appeal against an enforcement notice by application to the High Court, or to comply with it. It is our considered view that, unless the responsible party is absolutely certain that the Information Regulator has erred in issuing the enforcement notice, it is best to comply with the notice and undertake remedial action as recommended by the Information Regulator. Organisations must take cognisance of the fact that failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a serious offence which can result in imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years or a fine not exceeding R10 million or both.
After being issued with an enforcement notice in May 2023, the DOJ&CD was given 31 days to comply with the requirements of the notice, but it failed to do this and, as a result, it was then issued with an infringement notice and an administrative fine of R5 million. Not only did the department fail to protect the personal information of data subjects, but it has also caused itself reputational and financial harm by becoming the first entity to be sanctioned under POPIA. It had the opportunity to address the areas of deficiency as provided by the Information Regulator but did not do so.
In conclusion, the Information Regulator has shown that it will act against violations of personal information. It is ironic that the first infringement notice and administrative fine were issued against the DOJ&CD, which is expected to be in forefront of understanding the importance of compliance with the law. This failure by the department should serve as a warning for organisations that are not POPIA compliant, and which do not take violations of the protection of personal information seriously, to act immediately and ensure that they do not become the next party to be sanctioned by the Information Regulator.
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