The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) represents a determination of the EU legislators to unify data protection policies and laws throughout the EEU and enforce it with heavy penalties, at least that was a general idea.
However, not everything went so smoothly. Although 2020 showed some increase in activity by data protection authorities, in 2021, there has been a significant increase in both the number of GDPR fines issued so far and the individual amount of fines.
According to Finbold, between July 2020 and July 2021 number of GDPR violations has increased by 113.5%, while over the same period the number of GDPR fines experienced 124.92% growth.
There were a few setbacks, like an 18 million euro GDPR fine for the Austrian Post that was overturned at the end of 2020 or a significant reduction in the amount of two most-talked-about fines (Marriot and British Airways), due to special circumstances of the Coronavirus pandemic.
However, fines issued to Amazon (€746 million) and Whatsapp (€225 million) hugely surpassed what was the biggest fine for almost three years (Google €50 million), and for the time being, quieted strong criticism of GDPR’s effectiveness that was present before.
Two levels of GDPR fines
Before we jump over to the fines, a quick recap; there are two levels of GDPR fines:
- the lower level is up to €10 million, or 2% of the worldwide annual revenue from the previous year, whichever is higher
- the upper level is twice that size or €20 million and 4% of the worldwide annual revenue.
Since we don’t want to repeat ourselves (too much), you can read more about GDPR fine in general in our glossary.
20 biggest GDPR fines so far
Among EU member states, the highest individual GDPR fines were issued by Luxembourg, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK.
On July 16, 2021, the Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection (CNDP) issued the biggest fine ever for the violation of the GDPR in the amount of €746 million ($888 million) to Amazon.com Inc.
The fine was issued as a result of a complaint filed by 10,000 people against Amazon in May 2018, through a French privacy rights group that promotes and defends fundamental freedoms in the digital world- La Quadrature du Net.
The CNPD opened an investigation into how Amazon processes personal data of its customers and found infringements regarding Amazons’ advertising targeting system that was carried out without proper consent.
2. WhatsApp GDPR fine – €225 million
On 2 September 2021, Ireland’s data protection authority Data Privacy Commission (DPC), announced that it has issued a decision to issue a GDPR fine to a Facebook-owned instant messaging and voice-over-IP service WhatsApp Ireland €225 million (or $267 million) after a three-year investigation.
The binding decision was issued after the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) intervened and required the DPC (lead supervisory authority for WhatsApp Ireland Ltd.), to reassess the initially proposed fine regarding infringements of transparency the calculation of the fine as well as the timeframe for WhatsApp to comply.
3. Google LLC fine- €90 million
The CNIL concluded that making refusal mechanisms more complex than they should be, actually discourage users from refusing cookies, and benefits a company that bases its main revenue streams on advertising and targeting based on cookies.
The CNIL ordered the companies to provide users located in France with a means of refusing cookies as simple as the existing means of accepting them, within three months or pay the penalty of €100.000 euros per day of delay.
Cookie regulation or the ePrivacy Directive, does not directly fall under the GDPR, but GDPR defines how data controllers can obtain consent and therefore counts as the GDPR fine.
4. Google Ireland fine- €60 million
The €60 million fine issued to Google Ireland was issued by the CNIL the same day as the abovementioned fine to Google LLC.
The smaller fine of 60 million euros was issued for the exact same reasons as the €90 million fine. However, this fine was issued in relation to the google.fr search website.
5. Facebook Ireland- €60 million
6. Google France GDPR fine – €50 million
On January 21, 2019, the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), fined Google a €50 million fine for lack of transparency, inadequate information, lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization. The violation included infringements of Articles:
- Information to be provided where personal data are collected from the data subject – Article 13,
- Information to be provided where personal data have not been obtained from the data subject – Article 14,
- The lawfulness of processing – Article 6,
- Principles relating to the processing of personal data – Article 5
Google failed to provide enough information to users about consent policies and did not give them enough control over how their personal data is processed.
7. H&M GDPR fine- €35.25 million
The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BfDI) issued a €35,3 (or $41,5) million fine to Swedish retail conglomerate Hennes & Mauritz – H&M, for the violation of the GDPR.
After a technical error, the data on the company’s network drive was accessible to everyone in the company for a few hours. The press picked up the news making the Commissioner aware of the violation.
The case is pretty interesting since the company collected sensitive personal data of their employees through whispering campaigns, gossip, and other sources to create profiles of employees and used that data in the employment process.
The personal data included medical records including diagnoses and symptoms of the illness and private details about vacation and family affairs.
8. TIM GDPR fine- €27.8 million
The scope of their illegal activities is hard to ignore. TIM has contacted non-customers multiple times (certain numbers over 150 times per month) without proper consent or other legal bases.
A few million individuals were affected by their aggressive marketing strategy. Violations included:
- Improper management of consent lists
- Excessive data retention
- Data Breaches
- Lack of proper consent
- Violation of GDPR rights.
The personal information included name, surname, or company name; tax code or VAT number; telephone line; address; contact details.
We recommend you read an entire article that explains this case in detail:
9. Enel Energia GDPR fine – 26.5 million
On 19 January 2022, The Italian Data Protection Authority- Garante published its decision to impose a €26,5 million fine to Enel Energia, for violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regarding the unlawful processing of personal data for telemarketing purposes and violation of accountability principle, among other violations.
Garante carried out an investigation following numerous complaints and reports regarding:
- unsolicited marketing and promotional calls,
- late or non-response to requests for the exercise of the right of access to personal data or opposition to processing for marketing purposes,
- and various problems deriving from personal data management in the context of energy supply services, including the activities carried out through the company website and related app.
10. British Airways GDPR fine – €22.4 million
What was initially announced as the biggest GDPR fine ever issued ended up being reduced to £20 million, in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the airline industry.
The incident occurred in July 2018 but was only discovered in September 2018. In those few months, the British Airways website diverted users’ traffic to a hacker website, which resulted in hackers stealing personal data of more than 400.000 customers.
According to the ICO official statement, “…investigation found the airline was processing a significant amount of personal data without adequate security measures in place. This failure broke data protection law and, subsequently, BA was the subject of a cyber-attack during 2018, which it did not detect for more than two months.”
The company had inadequate security mechanisms to prevent such cyber-attacks from happening.
The ICO stated that a “variety of information was compromised by poor security arrangements at the company, including login, payment card, and travel booking details as well name and address information.”
11. Marriott GDPR fine – €20.45 million
In July 2019, ICO issued an intent to fine Marriott International £99 million fine for infringements of the GDPR. The fine was related to the cyber attack, exposing personal data of over 339 million guest records.
Out of those 339 million individuals, 31 million were residents of the EEA.
Marriott international exposed itself to the cyber-attack after the acquisition of the Starwood hotels group.
The ICO concluded that Marriott failed to undertake sufficient due diligence after the acquisition and should have implemented appropriate security measures.
On October 30, 2020, the ICO issued a penalty notice explaining its decision. After more than a year, there is finally a conclusion to the ICO investigation, the fine is settled from a massive £99 million to £18, 4million.
In their penalty notice, the ICO explains the reasons behind the decision taking into account a range of mitigating factors and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Marriott also commented on the decision on their official website stating:
“Marriott deeply regrets the incident. Marriott remains committed to the privacy and security of its guests’ information and continues to make significant investments in security measures for its systems, as the ICO recognizes. The ICO also recognizes the steps taken by Marriott following discovery of the incident to promptly inform and protect the interests of its guests.”
In 2020, Marriott suffered another data breach, this time affecting 5.2 million individuals. Read more about the second Marriot breach:
12. Wind GDPR fine – €16.7 million
On July 13, 2020, the Italian DPA- Garante issued a €16,700,000 GDPR fine to telecommunication operator – Wind Tre S.p.A.
The fine was issued following complex investigations after numerous complaints from individuals. More than a hundred clients filed a complaint about unsolicited marketing activities conducted without proper consent via calls, fax, automated telephone calls, and SMS.
Also, several customers complained that they could not withdraw their consent or even object to the processing while their personal data was published in public directories.
The DPA investigation showed that the apps that were used (MyWind and My3) had been configured to require the user to consent, on each access, to processing for various purposes including marketing, profiling, communication of data to third parties, data enrichment, and geolocation; however the withdrawal of such consent was allowed only after 24 hours.
13. Vodafone Italia GDPR fine- €12.25 million
On November 12, 2020, the Italian data protection authority – Garante issued a €12.25 million GDPR fine to Vodafone Italia for unlawful processing of personal data of millions of users for telemarketing purposes.
Garante conducted a complex investigation following numerous complaints about continuous unwanted telephone calls made by Vodafone and their sales network to promote their services.
The investigation unveiled an information storage system that had up to 4.5 million contacts, the list was purchased from external providers without proper consent. The violations affected Vodafone’s entire Italian customer base.
As the EDPB noted “The investigation brought to light major criticalities of a ‘structural’ nature having to do with the violation not only of consent requirements but also of key principles such as accountability and data protection by design as set forth in the EU GDPR. These criticalities could be traced down to the processing activities performed both in respect of Vodafone’s customer database and – more broadly – with regard to prospective users of electronic communications services.”
on January 8, 2021, German electronics retailer Notebooksbilliger.de received a €10.4 million GDPR fine for video monitoring employees for over two years without any legal basis, recording workplace, salesrooms, warehouses, and common areas.
Notebooksbilliger claimed that the reason behind the CCTV monitoring was theft prevention and criminal offenses investigation as well as tracking the flow of goods from the warehouse.
Two main objections of the LfD was that video monitoring was done without a proper legal basis and kept for significantly longer than necessary (60 days), in the time span of at least two years.
The fine was issued for unlawful processing in connection with telemarketing and teleselling activities. The Eni Gas e Luce conducted advertising calls without proper consent and regardless of customers’ previous refusal to receive advertising calls.
The company did not implement appropriate technical and organizational measures for consent management or any other appropriate solution for recording data subjects’ communication preferences and without verifying the public opt-out register.
Adding to the really serious list of violations is purchasing the data of potential customers from the list providers without any consent for the disclosure of those data sets.
On March 11, 2021, the Spanish Data Protection Authority (the AEPD) issued an €8.15 million fine to Vodafone Spain.
The fine actually consists of four fines; two for violation of the GDPR and two for violation ofo Spanish laws on digital rights and telecommunications and cookies.
Vodafone had targeted customers with unsolicited marketing activities including calls, emails, and SMS without proper consent. Some customers who have been contacted were even listed in the directory of people who do not want to receive marketing communications.
Vodafone was outsourcing some of its operations and was no longer able to identify which customers had opted out of third-party communications.
They also approved an international data transfer that didn’t meet the requirements of the GDPR and was found operating without any means to verify the origin or legality of the data being processed.
17. Grindr GDPR fine- €6.3 million
In December 2021, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority imposed a €6.3 million GDPR fine on Grindr– a dating and networking app marketed to gay, bi, trans, and queer people. The fine was issued for the disclosure of personal data to advertising partners without proper consent.
The consent that Grindr based their processing on did not represent a free choice because it did not allow separate consent for different data processing.
The access to the service in the free version of the app was made conditional on consenting to Grindr sharing personal data with advertising partners and individuals could not refuse or withdraw consent without detriment.
The disclosure of the data without valid consent has breached the individuals’ trust and violated their fundamental rights.
On January 13, 2021, the Spanish Data Protection Authority (AEPD) issued a €6 million fine to CaixaBank, S.A. for unlawful processing of personal data and for not providing sufficient information regarding the processing of personal data.
Just one month earlier Spanish DPA issued a €5 million GDPR fine to the BBVA bank, which indicates that AEPD wants to keep its status as one of the busiest data protection authorities in the EU.
The fine was issued for two infringements of GDPR, the first violation for how CaixaBank established a legal basis for personal data processing. Second, for violation of transparency requirements for Articles 13 and 14.
On December 11, 2020, the Spanish Data Protection Authority (AEPD) issued €2 million for violation of Article 13, about information that needs to be provided where personal data are collected from the individuals and €3 million for violation of Article 6 on the lawfulness of processing to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA).
This is the second-largest fine issued to a financial institution in Spain.
The Swedish Data Protection Authority issued a 75 million Swedish kronor fine (approximately €7 million or $8 million ) to Google for violation of General Data Protection Regulations.
It all started in 2017 when the DPA conducted an audit concerning how Google handles individuals’ right to have search result listings for searches that include their name, removed from Google’s search engine under the right-to-be-forgotten requests.
In the follow-up audit, the DPA concluded that Google did not fully comply with their order to remove several search results listing which resulted in huge fine.
GDPR fines so far -conclusion
This is the up-to-date and current list of the biggest GDPR fines so far, but the list is constantly changing indicating a lot of activities from data protection authorities. As the DLA Piper report is stating:
“Supervisory authorities across Europe have been staffing up their enforcement teams and getting to grips with the new regime.”
2022 is likely to give rise to more data privacy laws and could prove to be a year of increased enforcement and greater penalties for violations of GDPR.
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