The Personal Data Protection Authority of the Netherlands (Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, “AP”) revealed last week that they received nearly 5,500 data breach notifications in 2016, the first year of mandatory data breach notifications for the European country.
This contrasts with the 980 data breaches in the same period for the US, compiled by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), which is not government-affiliated. When you consider that the US has somewhere around 320 million people vs. the Netherlands’s 17 million, something feels very, very wrong here.
I can think of two possible ways to interpret the situation:
- The Dutch are just terrible at data security. This seems unlikely. It is the US, after all, that holds various records when it comes to data breaches. Last year, for example, Yahoo was crowned with the largest data breach in recorded history.
- The US data is severely undercounted. Most probably the reason for the seeming anomaly.
The latter is supported by the data breach reporting environment in the US.
To begin with, the US does not have a central authority in charge of data protection. There is no federal law addressing it, although a number of federal agencies do dictate data security in their respective areas; e.g., medical entities and their contractors follow the Department of Health and Human Services requirements regarding data security and breach notifications.
At the same time, states have their own laws governing data breach reports, governing what is and isn’t classified as such. And, each body that overseas such reports have their own policies on whether a data breach should be made public. Some make it easy to find online; others, not so much.
The 5,500 reported breaches translate to one data breach per 3,090 Dutch citizens. For the US, the 980 translates to one per 326,000 people. That’s a ratio of 105 to 1.
Granted, this is not the best way to represent the figures since it’s legal entities that have the duty to report data breaches. A search in Wolfram Alpha shows that the total number of registered businesses in the Netherlands and the USA were, respectively, 1.03 million and 5.156 million.
This brings down the numbers to one data breach per 187 Dutch businesses, and 5,261 per American businesses. The ratio is now 28 to 1, a considerable reduction, but still very large. Some of the difference could be attributed to the stronger regulations governing data security in Europe: stricter laws, with a propensity to err on the side of caution (read: privacy), means that the Dutch would see a data breach where Americans don’t. Also, it could be that the Dutch are more forthcoming with such things because the legal environment is not as litigation-happy.
No matter how it’s cut and dried, however, one thing is certain: 980 breaches reported in the US seems comically low. If we were to assume that the US is comparatively affected by data breaches as the Netherlands, with a similar rate of notification to the authorities, then one would expect 27,500 data breaches in 2016.
At the end of the day, all the signs point to this: we don’t have in the US a good idea of how big or bad the problem is. The best we’re willing to do, apparently, is rig the system so that we lowball the number to a point it’s not realistic.
That’s a real problem because, who would feel the need to marshal resources when the problem appears to be so small?
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