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Section: New Results

Security Analysis of GDPR Subject Access Request Procedures

With the GDPR in place since May 2018, the rights of the European users have been strengthened. The GDPR defines users' rights and aims at protecting their personal data. Every European Data Protection Authority (DPA) provides advices, explanations and recommendations on the use of these rights. However, the GDPR does not provide any prescriptive requirements on how to authenticate a data subject request. This lack of concrete description undermines the practical effect of the GDPR: it hampers the way to exercise the subject access right, to check the lawfulness of the processing and to enforce the derived legal rights therefrom (erasure, rectification, restriction, etc).

Every data subject would like to benefit from the rights specified in GDPR, but still wonders: How do I exercise my access right? How do I prove my identity to the controller? These questions are critical to build trust between the data subject and the controller. The data subject is concerned with threats like impersonation and abusive identity check. Impersonation is the case of a malicious party who attempts to abuse the subject access request (SAR) by impersonating a subject to a controller. Abusive identity check occurs when a data controller is too curious and verifies the identity of a subject by asking irrelevant and unnecessary information like an electricity bill or government issued documents.

Symmetrically, every data controller needs to know how to proceed when they receive an access request: Is the request legitimate? What is necessary to identify the subject's data? These concerns aggravate when controllers deal with indirectly-linked identifiers, such as IP addresses, or when they have no prior contact with data subjects, as in Google Spain  (Google Spain SL and Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja González, Case C-131/12, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62012CJ0131&from=EN). Most of all, data controllers want to avoid data breaches, as it can result in legal proceedings and heavy fines. Such consequence occurs in two cases: (i) the data controller releases data to an illegitimate subject, or (ii) he releases data of a subject A to a legitimate subject B.

All these questions concern the authentication procedure between the data subject and the controller. They both share a common interest in holding a strong authentication procedure to prevent impersonation and data breaches. The subject must be careful during the authentication procedure, as for providing too much personal information could compromise her right of privacy. Additionally, the controller needs to ask the appropriate information to identify the subject's data without ambiguity. There is clearly a tension during this authentication act between the controller, who tries to get as much information as possible, and the data subject who wants to provide as little as possible. Plausibly, subject access rights can probably increase the incidence of personal records being accidentally or deliberately opened to unauthorised third parties  [22].

This work studies the tension during the authentication between the data subject and the data controller. We first evaluate the threats to the SAR authentication procedure and then we analyze the recommendations of 28 DPAs of European Union countries. We observe that four of them can potentially lead to abusive identity check. On the positive side, six of them are recommending to enforce the data minimization principle during authentication. This principle, on one hand, protects the right to privacy of data subjects, and on the other hand prevents data controllers to massively collect personal data that is not needed for authentication, thus preventing abusive identity check.

We have then evaluated the authentication procedure when exercising the access right of the 50 most popular websites and 30 third-party tracking services. Several popular websites require to systematically provide a national identity card or government-issued documents to authenticate the data subject. Among third-party tracking services, 9 of them additionally to cookies demand other personal data from the data subjects, like the identity card or the full name. We explain that such demands are not justified because additional information can not prove the ownership of the cookie.

We then provide guidelines to Data Protection Authorities, website owners and third party services on how to authenticate data subjects safely while protecting their identities, and without requesting additional unnecessary information (complying with the data minimization principle). More precisely, we explain how data controllers and data subjects must interact and how digital identifiers can be redesigned to be compliant with the GDPR.

This work has been published at the Annual Privacy Forum (APF) 2019 [13].