The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently released a data breach guide for businesses, along with a video and blog to help companies following the immediate aftermath of a data breach. The FTC also provides a model data breach letter to notify individuals of a breach. The agency – which views itself as the nation’s primary “privacy police” has faced scrutiny from private parties and courts for allegedly enforcing privacy and data security standards without promulgating specific rules. The agency instead favors outreach efforts, such its blogs, guides and roundtables to educate industry and the public regarding what it views as best practices.
In this vein, the Guide and the model letter are not a “safe harbor” but offer suggestions on important steps that organizations can follow once they discover data breaches. The FTC emphasizes that the Guide does not pertain to the actual protection of personal information or prevention of breaches, because the agency has already issued separate guidance documents on those subjects. In fact, the FTC also recently updated its guide on protecting personal information.
Following a data breach, the Guide suggests key steps organizations can take, which include:
- Mobilizing the company’s breach response team to prevent further data loss – the team may include legal, information security, IT, human resources, communications, investor relations, and management; companies may consider hiring an independent forensics team;
- Securing physical areas – lock any physical areas affected by a breach; consider changing access codes;
- Taking affected equipment offline immediately – monitor all entry and exit points, and update authorized users’ credentials and passwords;
- Removing improperly posted information from the company’s website, for instance in a situation where personal information affected by the breach is posted on the company’s website. The FTC also advises companies to search the Internet to see if breached information has been posted on other websites and to contact the owners of those websites;
- Protecting evidence – the FTC reminds companies to retain forensic evidence (e. do not destroy it);
- Documenting the investigation, including interviewing people who discovered the breach and making sure employees (such as customer service representatives) know where to forward information that might assist the company in its investigation;
- Examining service provider relationships, to determine if providers have access to personal information and whether provider access privileges should be changed;
- Determining whether data was encrypted at the time of the breach (note: encryption may obviate the need for data breach reporting in many states);
- Implementing a communications plan that explains the data breach to employees, customers, investors, partners, and others such as the press. The FTC recommends “plain English” answers on a company’s website;
- Following legal requirements – such as state data breach notifications and notifying law enforcement;
- Offering at least a year of free credit monitoring – while not required, free monitoring has become standard and most regulators and consumers expect to see the offer in data breach notifications.
As to data breach notification letters, in addition to following the requirements of state laws, the FTC urges companies to advise people what steps they can take, based on the information exposed. When a breach compromises social security numbers, individuals should be directed to contact the credit bureaus to request fraud alerts or credit freezes. Since some scammers pounce on data breach victims, the FTC counsels organizations to tell consumers how they will be contacted going forward. For instance, if the company will never contact individuals by phone, the company should tell consumers that – so individuals can detect telephonic phishing schemes.
The FTC encourages businesses to use the Guide and its accompanying materials to educate employees and customers, such as through newsletters and websites. However, when facing an enforcement action or a lawsuit, will a company’s compliance with the Guide offer any relief from FTC or state Attorney General penalties or assist organizations in their defense in private data breach lawsuits? Ultimately, the crux of breach liability usually relates to how it occurred, but taking swift, corrective actions following a breach should aid an organization when dealing with regulators and third parties by showing good faith actions to prevent further damages. Conversely, a company that fails to take corrective actions can exacerbate a breach and further negatively impact affected individuals and the organization.
The FTC’s Guide and accompanying materials are helpful references, particularly for smaller businesses. As a practical matter, the words of advice I give companies facing a possible data breach is to first, take the time to determine what happened, how it happened, whether the breach continues, and what you can do to prevent it in the future. While several states require reporting within a set number of days (e.g., 45), the laws allow organizations time to conduct factual inquiries, take corrective measures, and prepare to notify affected individuals. Organizations should not rush through these key steps. Second, communication is key. A company facing a breach should develop a clear, consistent statement regarding the breach, the steps being taken and a single contact point. The lack of a communication plan or a consistent message can cause a huge loss of customer and employee confidence and raise regulators’ interest. Third, when preparing data breach notifications, organizations should note that it is likely that the letter will become public due to some states’ open records laws. Numerous websites exist that track and publicize data breaches, based upon information in the notifications – often including copies of the actual letters. Companies should not assume that regulators and consumers simply file the letters away. While your organization cannot prevent the publicity, having a clear, concise data breach notification that meets each state’s requirements without providing excess data will help the company through the process and associated publicity.
In March 2015, I wrote about the ongoing dispute between the FTC and LabMD, an Atlanta-based cancer screening laboratory, and looked at whether the FTC has the authority to take enforcement action over data-security practices alleged to be insufficient and therefore “unfair” under section 5(n) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTCA”). On November 13, 2015, an administrative law judge ruled that the FTC had failed to prove its case.
In 2013, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD, alleging it had failed to secure personal, patient-sensitive information on its computer networks. The FTC alleged that LabMD lacked a comprehensive information-security program, and had therefore failed to (i) implement measures to prevent or detect unauthorized access to the company’s computer networks, (ii) restrict employee access to patient data, and (iii) test for common security risks.
The FTC linked this absence of protocol to two security breaches. First, an insurance aging report containing personal information about thousands of LabMD customers was leaked from the billing manager’s computer onto peer-to-peer file-sharing platform LimeWire, where it was available for download for at least eleven months. Second, Sacramento police reportedly discovered hard copies of LabMD records in the hands of unauthorized individuals. They were charged with identity theft in an unrelated case of fraudulent billing and pleaded no contest.
Incriminating as it all might seem, Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell dismissed the FTC’s complaint entirely, citing a failure to show that LabMD’s practices had caused substantial consumer injury in either incident.
Section 5(n) of the FTCA requires the FTC to show that LabMD’s acts or practices caused, or were likely to cause, substantial injury to consumers. The ALJ held that “substantial injury” means financial harm or unwarranted risks to health and safety. It does not cover embarrassment, stigma, or emotional suffering. As for “likely to cause,” the ALJ held that the FTC was required to prove “probable” harm, not simply “possible” or speculative harm. The ALJ noted that the statute authorizes the FTC’s regulation of future harm (assuming all statutory criteria are met), but that unfairness liability, in practice, applies only to cases involving actual harm.
In the case of the insurance aging report, the evidence showed that the file had been downloaded just once—by a company named Tiversa, which did so to pitch its own data-security services to LabMD. As for the hard copy records, their discovery could not be traced to LabMD’s data-security measures, said the ALJ. Indeed, the FTC had not shown that the hard copy records were ever on LabMD’s computer network.
The FTC had not proved—either with respect to the insurance aging report or the hard copy documents—that LabMD’s alleged security practices caused or were likely to cause consumer harm.
The FTC has appealed the ALJ’s decision to a panel of FTC Commissioners who will render the agency’s final decision on the matter. The FTC’s attorneys argue that the ALJ took too narrow a view of harm, and a substantial injury occurs when any act or practice poses a significant risk of concrete harm. According to the FTC’s complaint counsel, LabMD’s data-security measures posed a significant risk of concrete harm to consumers when the billing manager’s files were accessible via LimeWire, and that risk amounts to an actual, substantial consumer injury covered by section 5(n) of the FTCA.
The Commissioners heard oral arguments in early March and will probably issue a decision in the next several months. On March 20th, LabMD filed a related suit in district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission for its “unconstitutional abuse of government power and ultra vires actions.”
Every week, we learn about new data breaches affecting consumers across the country. Federal government workers and retirees recently received the unsettling news that a breach compromised their personal information, including social security numbers, job history, pay, race, and benefits. Amid a host of other public relations issues, the Trump organization recently discovered a potential data breach at its hotel chain. If you visited the Detroit Zoo recently, you may want to check your credit card statements, as the zoo’s third party vendor detected “malware” which allowed access to customers’ credit and debit card numbers. And, certainly, none of us can forget the enormous data breach at Target, and the associated data breach notifications and subsequent lawsuits.
For years, members of Congress have stressed the need for national data breach standards and data security requirements. Aside from mandates in particular laws, such as HIPAA, movement on data breach requirements had stalled in Congress. Years ago, however, the states picked up the slack, establishing data breach notification laws requiring notifications to consumers and, in many instances to attorneys general and consumer protection offices when certain defined “personal information” was breached. California led the pack, passing its law in 2003. Today, 47 states have laws requiring organizations to notify consumers when a data breach has compromised consumers’ personal information. Several states’ laws also mandate particular data security practices, including Massachusetts, which took the lead on establishing “standards for protection of personal information.”
Many businesses and their lobbying organizations have urged Congress to preempt state laws and establish a national standard. Most companies have employees or customers in multiple states. Thus, under current laws, organizations have to address a multitude of state requirements, including triggering events, types of personal information covered, how quickly the notification must be made, who gets notified, what information should be included in the notification, among others. State Attorneys General, on the other hand, assert that, irrespective of these inconveniences, their oversight of data breaches through the supervision of notifications and enforcement has played a critical role in consumer protection.
This week, the Attorneys General from the 47 states wrote to Congressional leaders, urging Congress to maintain states’ authority in any federal law, by requiring data breach notifications, and preserving the states’ enforcement authority.
The AGs’ key points are:
- State AG offices have played critical roles in investigating and enforcing data security lapses for more than a decade.
- States have been able to respond to constant changes in data security by passing “significant, innovative laws related to data security, identity theft, and privacy.” This includes addressing new categories of information, such as biometric data and login credentials for online accounts.
- States are on the “front lines” of helping consumers deal with the fallout of data breaches and have the most experience in guiding consumers through the process of removing fraudulent charges and repairing their credit. By way of example, the Illinois AG helped nearly 40,000 Illinois residents remove more than $27 million in unauthorized charges from their accounts.
- Forty states participate in the “Privacy Working” group, where state AGs coordinate to investigate data breaches affecting consumers across multiple states.
- Consumers keep asking for more protection. Any preemption of state law “would make consumers less protected than they are right now.”
- States are better equipped to “quickly adjust to the challenges presented by a data-driven economy.”
- Adding enforcement and regulatory authority at the federal level could hamper the effectiveness of the state law. Some breaches will be too small to have priority at the federal level; however, these breaches may have a large impact at the state or regional level.
Interestingly, just this week, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced a House bill mandating that companies inform consumers within 30 days of a data breach. The bill also requires minimum security standards. Representative Cicilline’s bill would not preempt stricter state-level data breach security laws. The bill also contains a broad definition of “personal information” to include data that could lead to “dignity harm” – such as personal photos and videos, in addition to the traditional categories of banking information and social security numbers. The proposed legislation would also impose civil penalties upon organizations that failed to meet the standards.
Without a doubt data breaches will continue – whether from bad actors, technical glitches, or common employee negligence. The states have certainly “picked up the slack” for over a decade while Congressional actions stalled. Understandably, the state AGs do not want Congress taking over the play in their large and established “privacy sandbox.” Preemption will continue to be a key issue for any federal data breach legislation before Congress. As someone who has guided companies through multi-state data breach notifications, I have seen firsthand that requiring businesses to deal with dozens of differing state requirements is costly and extremely burdensome. Small businesses, in particular, are faced with having to grapple with a data security incident while trying to understand and comply with a multitude of state requirements. Those businesses do not have the resources of a “Target” and complying with a patchwork of laws significantly and adversely impacts those businesses. While consumer protection is paramount, a federal standard for data breach notification would provide a common and clear-cut standard for all organizations and reduce regulatory burdens. While the federal standard could preempt state notification laws, states could continue to play critical roles as enforcement authorities.
In the interim, companies must ensure that they comply with the information security requirements and data breach notifications of applicable states. An important, and overlooked aspect is to remember that while an organization may think of itself as, say a “Vermont” or “Virginia” company, it is likely that the company has personal information on residents of various states – for instance, employees who telecommute from neighboring states, or employees who left the company and moved to a different state. Even a “local” or “regional” company can face a host of state requirements. As part of an organization’s data security planning, companies should periodically survey the personal information they hold and the affected states. In addition to data breach requirements in the event of a breach, organizations need to address applicable state data security standards.
It’s International Data Privacy Day! Every year on January 28, the United States, Canada and 27 countries of the European Union celebrate Data Privacy Day. This day is designed to raise awareness of and generate discussion about data privacy rights and practices. Indeed, each day new reports surface about serious data breaches, data practice concerns, and calls for legislation. How can businesses manage data privacy expectations and risk amid this swirl of activity?
Here, we share some tips from our firm’s practice and some recent FTC guidance. We don’t have a cake to celebrate International Data Privacy Day but we do have our “Top 10 Data Privacy Tips”:
3. Ensure Your U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Is Up-to-Date. Last year, the FTC took action against several companies, including the Atlanta Falcons and Level 3 Communications, for stating in their privacy policies that they were U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce when, in fact, the companies had failed to keep their certification current by reaffirming their compliance annually. While your organization is not required to participate in Safe Harbor, don’t say you are Safe Harbor Certified if you haven’t filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce. And, remember that your company needs to reaffirm compliance annually, including payment of a fee. You can check your company’s status here.
4. Understand Your Internal Risks. We’ve said this before – while malicious breaches are certainly out there, a significant percentage of breaches (around 30 percent, according to one recent study) occurs due to accidents or malicious acts by employees. These acts include lack of firewalls, lack of encryption on devices (such as laptops and flash drives), and failing to change authentications when employees leave or are terminated. Many data breaches are While you are at it, review who has access to confidential information and whether proper restrictions are in place.
5. Educate Your Workforce. While today is International Data Privacy Day, your organization should educate your workforce on privacy issues throughout the year. Depending on the size of the company and the type of information handled (for instance, highly sensitive health information versus standard personal contact details), education efforts may vary. You should review practices like the confidentiality of passwords, creating a secure password and changing it frequently, and avoiding downloading personal or company sensitive information in unsecured forms. Just last week, a security firm reported that the most popular passwords for 2014 were “123456” and “password.” At a minimum, these easily guessed passwords should not be allowed in your system.
6. Understand Specific Requirements of Your Industry/Customers/ Jurisdiction. Do you have information on Massachusetts residents? Massachusetts requires that your company have a Written Information Security Program. Does your company collect personal information from kids under 13? The organization must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the FTC’s rules. The FTC has taken many actions against companies deemed to be collecting children’s information without properly seeking prior express parental consent.
7. Maintain a Data Breach Response Plan. If there were a potential data breach, who would get called? Legal? IT? Human Resources? Public relations? Yes, likely all of these. The best defense is a good offense – plan ahead. Representatives from in-house and outside counsel, IT/IS, human resources, and your communications department should be part of this plan. State data breach notification laws require prompt reporting. Some companies have faced lawsuits for alleged “slow” response times. If there is potential breach, your company needs to gather resources, investigate, and if required, disclose the breach to governmental authorities, affected individuals, credit reporting agencies, etc.
8. Consider Contractual Obligations. Before your company commits to data security obligations in contracts, ensure that a knowledgeable party, such as in-house or outside counsel, reviews these commitments. If there is a breach of a contracting party’s information, assess the contractual requirements in addition to those under data breach notification laws. The laws generally require notice to be given promptly when a company’s data is compromised while under the “care” of another company. On the flip side, consider the service providers your company uses and what type of access the providers have to sensitive data. You should require service providers to adhere to reasonable security standards, with more stringent requirements if they handle sensitive data.
9. Review Insurance Coverage. While smaller businesses may think “we’re not Target” and don’t need cyber insurance, that’s a false assumption. In fact, smaller businesses usually have less sophisticated protections and can be more vulnerable to hackers and employee negligence. Data breaches – requiring investigations, hiring of outside experts such as forensics, paying for credit monitoring, and potential loss of goodwill – can be expensive. Carriers are offering policies that do not break the bank. Cyber insurance is definitely worth exploring. If you believe you have coverage for a data incident, your company should promptly notify the carrier. Notice should be part of the data breach response plan.
10. Remember the Basics! Many organizations have faced the wrath of the FTC, state attorneys general or private litigants because the companies or its employees failed to follow basic data security procedures. The FTC has settled 53 data security law enforcement actions. Many involve the failure to take common sense steps with data, such as transmitting sensitive data without encryption, or leaving documents with personal information in a dumpster. Every company must have plans to secure physical and electronic information. The FTC looks at whether a company’s practices are “reasonable and appropriate in light of the sensitivity and amount of consumer information you have, the size and complexity of your business, and the availability and cost of tools to improve security and reduce vulnerabilities.” If the FTC calls, you want to have a solid explanation of what you did right, not be searching for answers, or offering excuses. Additional information on the FTC’s guidance can be found here.
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Remember, while it may be International Data Privacy Day, data privacy isn’t a one day event. Privacy practices must be reviewed and updated regularly to protect data as well as enable your company to act swiftly and responsively in the event of a data breach incident.