How To Verify User Identity For Data Subject Access Requests

When your business receives a data subject request, verifying the identity of the requestor is a key first step. This step-by-step guide takes you through the pros and cons for different methods of subject request identity verification.

Thanks to the introduction of sophisticated data privacy law in recent years, companies have been forced to rethink how they view the data they process. To stay compliant with global regulations, organizations are now obliged to implement systems that not only protect an individual’s data, but also respect their choices when it comes to how that data is stored and used. The individual can make certain legally-enforceable demands of the organization that processes their data using a mechanism called a Data Subject Access Request. 

Access requests are a crucial part of data privacy law, so it’s important to have the systems in place to grant them securely. This guide shows different methods you can use to verify the identity of the user making the request.

What is a Data Subject Access Request?

The European GDPR was the first major law to codify Data Subject Access Requests. In line with Article 15 of GDPR, a ‘data subject access request’ ( or just ‘access request’) is a request an individual can make for a complete record of their personal data which are being ‘processed’ (i.e. used in some way) by a ‘controller’ (i.e. an organization who decides how and why their data are processed).

Many of the access rights GDPR grants to an individual are being mirrored all over the world, most notably in the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (or LGPD),  so it’s crucial for any organization that processes personally identifiable information (PII) to have a system in place to deal with these requests in an efficient, secure way.  Key to this is having some form of identity verification in place to confirm the identity of the individual making an access request.

Why is Identity Verification Important for Access Requests?

To explain why identity verification is a necessary step in access requests, it’s first necessary to explain two common data privacy terms: data controller and data processor.

A data controller determines the purposes for which and the means by which personally identifiable data is processed. If your company defines ‘why’ and ‘how’ the personal data that it processes should be processed then it is, by definition, the data controller. If the ‘why’ and ‘how’ is jointly determined with one or more other organizations then they are deemed to be joint controllers along with your company.

A data processor, on the other hand, processes personally identifiable data on behalf of the controller. The data processor is usually a third party external to the company. Most commonly, a company occupies both roles as data controller and data processor and may have a number of third party service providers that act as data sub-processors.

As part of a data controller’s legal privacy obligations, access requests need to be carried out with identity verification, so as to prevent data from being shared with an individual that they do not belong to. 

Recital 64 of GDPR states that: 

“the controller should use all reasonable measures to verify the identity of a data subject who requests access, in particular, in the context of online services and online identifiers.”. 

Under GDPR, state bodies can be fined up to €1 million for failure to meet their obligations, and multinationals can be fined up to €20 million, or four per cent of their previous year’s turnover.

Under the CCPA, businesses are also required to observe a number of privacy best practices, facilitate access requests, and more. Those found to be in breach of the CCPA can be fined per individual affected, per violation. The maximum fine can be as high as $7,500 of statutory damages per individual affected, per violation. In a class action lawsuit, that adds up quick.

Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados Pessoais (LGPD) follows suit with a fine of up to 2% of a private legal entity’s, group’s, or conglomerate’s revenue in Brazil, for the prior fiscal year, excluding taxes, up to a total maximum of 50 million Brazillian reals.

When the possibility of receiving such heavy penalties is on the line, a violation of data privacy law is not something any organization wishes to experience. 

To make it easier for you to get started with identity verification, we’ve outlined some of the methods that you can implement for Data Subject Access Requests below. 

Methods of Identity Verification for Data Subject Access Requests

One thing to consider from the outset is GDPR’s obligation that “A controller should not retain personal data for the sole purpose of being able to react to potential requests”. This means that your company cannot ask for any more information than that which it already possesses in order to verify an individual’s identity. 

Another way to think about this is: you shouldn’t ask for people to provide more, new data in order to access the data your business already has.

With this in mind, we’ve provided a number of methods that an organization can implement to make sure that they’re in compliance with data privacy law. Each has its pros and cons, and the right approach will be dependent on the needs and capabilities of your organization.

Method 1 – Knowledge-based authentication

One of the easiest methods of identity verification is to use the PII your company already possesses about an individual in order to verify that they’re who they say they are. This involves asking them questions that relate to the information you store about them. Some examples of this method are:

  • Ask a series of questions about the individual’s personal information such as what their date of birth, home address, or telephone number are. This is a very basic level of verification.
  • Ask a series of questions based on their use of your services e.g. a bank could ask for a recent example of a transaction the individual made, a SaaS company could ask them to name the plan that they are subscribed to, an online store could ask for the last 4 digits of the credit card they have saved on file, etc. 
  • Get the individual to answer specific personal questions when they set up an account and the answers to these secret questions could be used in future for identity verification e.g. What is your favorite book?, What is your mother’s maiden name?, What was the name of your first pet?, etc. 
Pros Cons
  • Makes use of existing information
  • Requires little additional investment
  • Basic security level
  • Can be a manual, time consuming process
  • Could be exploited by bad actors who gain access to the “known information”
  • Risky to perform manually as it exposes personal information about the data subject to company employees

Method 2 – User Login/Account credentials

Depending on your business’ data systems, the individual making the access request may be able to prove their identity by virtue of having access to your company’s services or by possessing certain account credentials. Some examples of this method could be:

  • The individual has a user account with secure login credentials which they can use to login to your application. From there, they can make the request, having already been verified.
  • The individual makes the request from a business email address that matches a record your company already has stored, in which case a response can be given to that same email address.
  • The individual is an employee of your company and makes the request from a company email address. The response could then be sent to that same email address.
Pros Cons
  • Secure
  • Efficient
  • User-friendly experience
  • Requires very little additional investment
  • Could be exploited by bad actors who gain access to the account credentials
  • Can require an additional step of friction (account creation) for users filing access requests
  • Does not support ‘semi-anonymous’ users such as guest checkout from e-commerce or users of software that do not have a registered account

Method 3 – Multi-factor authentication

If your company possesses a contact method for an individual, you can use it to carry out a form of authentication that is even more robust than having that individual log in to their account alone. By sending the individual a one-time passcode and asking them to confirm the passcode, you can securely and easily confirm that they are the person that is making the access request. Examples of this method include:

  • Using information that you possess such as the individual’s phone number or email address to send them a one-time passcode which the individual can use to verify their identity. 
  • If your company has a software application, you may be able to send a push notification to the individual making the request that includes a one-time passcode or a prompt to verify their identity. 
Pros Cons
  • Very secure
  • Efficient
  • User-friendly experience
  • Implementing multi-factor authentication initially can be costly and cumbersome
  • The device or email inbox used by the individual for multi-factor authentication could be compromised

Method 4 – Outsource to a third party

If maintaining Data Subject Access Request compliance is not something your company wishes to do themselves, then you could consider outsourcing the workload to one of a number of third party specialists that can implement and manage this system for you. 

If your company decides to go down the outsourcing route, there are a couple of options:

  • You could choose to outsource just the identity verification process to a third-party and still maintain control over the rest of the access request process. These third parties typically verify identity using existing information such as credit reference agency data, so this method provides a high degree of trust. However, it’s always costly and the need to coordinate this part of the process with other vendors is inefficient by nature. Your company will also still need to process the rest of the access request once identity verification is complete.
  • Alternatively, your company could decide to fully outsource your Data Subject Access Request function. You should be mindful, however, that this could further convolute the process for your users. Many third party providers use additional third-party suppliers to perform the identity verification part of the data access request. For the user, this could mean a scenario like the one described in a recent Bloomberg article:
Let’s pause for a second to recap the situation. I asked Acxiom to show me the data it had on me and to delete it. Roughly two hours into the process, at least three companies (and possibly 10 or more companies) have access to a photo of me, pictures of my driver’s license, my signature, name, email and home address.

This is a poor experience for the individual making the request. It can also be very expensive in comparison to managing it internally with the help of data privacy software that actually lives in your system. One of the advantages of Ethyca’s solution is that we don’t duplicate any of your user data into new locations, or share it with any additional third parties, including identity verification vendors. Our software simply identifies and classifies data as it exists in your systems. When users file a data subject request with an Ethyca-powered business, they can rest assured that their PII footprint will not increase simply because they make a request for access. 

Pros Cons
  • Industry leaders are highly trustworthy
  • Access to expertise and infrastructure of specialist third party
  • Frees up internal resources 
  • Third-party services are expensive 
  • May create a poor, disjointed user experience
  • The questions asked by third parties may feel excessive or intimidating to the individual as they are often unrelated to the service being provided by your company

Conclusion: Don’t Forget to Keep an Audit Trail

Regardless of the method that you choose to implement, it is crucial that your organization stores an audit trail of all Data Subject Access Requests that they process, including identity verification confirmation, so that you can prove that they were carried out in compliance with data privacy law. That audit trail should be uneditable so as to support its legitimacy. 

Implementing a system for identity verification can be a complex and time-consuming task, but you can make the process painless by using Ethyca’s Subject Request Panel. You can create an account for free today and get started managing user privacy, or you if you have any questions about how Ethyca works, reach out to one of our team.

Strong password practices are essential for keeping your company's and users' data safe, in processing DSARs and in your general business practices. However, passwords are just one part of the equation. For next-level protection, here's the 411 on 2FA: two-factor authentication.

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