British Airways has apologised after the credit card details of hundreds of thousands of its customers were stolen over a two-week period in an attack on its website and app.
The airline discovered on Wednesday that bookings made between 21 August 5 September had been infiltrated in a “very sophisticated, malicious criminal” attack, said BA chairman and chief executive Alex Cruz. It immediately contacted customers when the extent of the breach became clear.
Around 380,000 card payments were compromised, the airline said, with hackers obtaining names, street and email addresses, credit card numbers, expiry dates and security codes – sufficient information to steal from accounts.
The attack came 15 months after the carrier suffered a significant computer system failure at Heathrow airport, which stranded 75,000 customers over a holiday weekend.
Cruz said the carrier was “deeply sorry” for the disruption caused by the sophisticated crime, which was unprecedented in the more than 20 years that BA had operated online. He said the attackers had not broken the airline’s encryption but did not explain exactly how they had obtained the customer information.
“There were other methods, very sophisticated efforts, by criminals in obtaining the data,” he told BBC radio. “It was having access to our systems in an illicit way, it was very sophisticated.”
Shares in BA’s parent, International Airlines Group, fell 3% in early trading today. However, the company had been commended in its handling of the incident in light of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
“BA’s reaction was very fast,” Ilia Kolochenko, chief executive of web security company High-Tech Bridge, told Computer Weekly. “The company’s transparency and frankness serve as a good example to other companies who are prone to minimising the consequences.”
However, violations can be punished with as much as 4% of a company’s annual sales, which for BA could reach about £489m based on 2017 figures. “This is one of the first big tests of GDPR,” Julian Saunders, founder of Port.im, a British software maker that helps businesses adapt to the rules, told Bloomberg. The question for regulators is “whether BA’s actions warrant a fine.”
BA informed customers affected by the attack yesterday, Cruz said. It advised them to contact their bank or credit card provider and follow their recommended advice. It also took out ads in national newspapers today.
Data security expert Trevor Reschke said that like any website which sees large volumes of card transactions, British Airways was a ripe target for hackers. “It is now a race between British Airways and the criminal underground,” said Reschke, head of threat intelligence at Trusted Knight.
“One will be figuring out which cards have been compromised and alerting victims, whilst the other will be trying to abuse them while they are still fresh.”
IAG said the data breach had been resolved and the website was working normally, and that no travel or passport details were stolen. The airline had launched an investigation and notified police and other relevant authorities.
After the computer system failure in May 2017, BA said it would take steps to ensure such an incident never happened again, but in July it was forced to cancel and delay flights out of the same airport due to problems with a supplier’s IT systems.
Picture courtesy of British Airways.