The apparent reason for the large fine was the fact that “in 2010, [the Office for Civil Rights (OCR)] investigated URMC concerning a similar breach involving a lost unencrypted flash drive and provided technical assistance to URMC. Despite the previous OCR investigation, and URMC’s own identification of a lack of encryption as a high risk to ePHI, URMC permitted the continued use of unencrypted mobile devices.”
As with most OCR enforcement actions, there is typically an industry wide message with each large fine – in this case there are two, namely the failure to encrypt will simply no longer be tolerated and once given a pass by OCR be sure not to waste it.
UPDATE: December 3,
In keeping with its apparent practice of announcing HIPAA violation resolutions in clusters, on November 7, 2019, OCR announced a $1.6 million penalty against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission for violations of the Privacy and Security Rules had between 2013 and 2017. The primary breach occurred when “an internal application was moved from a private, secure server to a public server and a flaw in the software code allowed access to ePHI without access credentials.” OCR also determined that in addition to the impermissible disclosure, there was a failure “to perform an accurate, thorough, and enterprise-wide risk analysis that meets the requirements of45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(l)(ii)(a) [Security Rule].” Interestingly, the OCR applied its new civil money penalty caps published in April.
And, on November 27, 2019, OCR revealed its enforcement settlement with a hospital network that sent bills to patients containing “the patient names, account numbers, and dates of service” of 577 other patients. Sentara Hospitals – based in Virginia and North Carolina, did not think such information was protected health information (PHI) and only notified the 8 patients where there was also a disclosure of treatment information. Given that Sentara “persisted in its refusal to properly report the breach even after being explicitly advised of their duty to do so by OCR”, it was stuck with a $2.175 million penalty. Given that PHI has been interpreted to include healthcare payment information linked to a specific individual, Sentara was obviously taking a chance when it ignored OCR’s advice. On the other hand, protected health information is expressly defined to mean “individually identifiable health information” so there was at least a colorable argument that payment information – even if related to the provision of healthcare, is not “health information” in any direct sense. 45 CFR § 160.401.
Providing some year-end advice that should also not be disregarded, on December 2, 2019, OCR released its Fall 2019 Cybersecurity Newsletter focusing on ransomware and how covered entities and business associates should apply the Security Rule as a mitigation tool against this threat.
These latest announcements were clustered to push one primary message, namely do not disregard explicit counsel from OCR given that when it comes to the OCR it most certainly holds a grudge when ignored. In addition, CE’s and BA’s are well advised to deploy an enterprise-wide risk analysis that determines whether there are out-facing vulnerabilities that should be patched. And finally, as shown by the significant amount assessed against the University of Rochester Medical Center, future disregard of encryption as a risk mitigation tool will likely lead to enhanced penalties going forward.
Indeed, blockchain technology may not even be needed by President Xi Jinping to create a permanent record of all citizen interactions. China may possibly use blockchain technology or distributed ledger technology for grandiose tracking plans, or it may ultimately not bother given possible security and scalability challenges with such nascent technologies.
Whatever the direction ultimately taken by China, the takeaway from President Xi Jinping’s recent comments is clear – China will invest nationally in new technologies such as blockchain whereas the United States will largely stay on the sidelines and rely on private companies to innovate and deploy new technologies – which is actually Zuckerberg’s argument for allowing Libra to proceed.
On September 13, 2019, the California Legislature adjourned with numerous CCPA amendments ready for the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Two amendments that ultimately passed, AB 25 – which provides a one-year moratorium on CCPA’s application to employee, beneficiary and emergency contact information, and AB 1355 – a broad-ranging amendment to the law, are particularly helpful for business owners. Other changes to CCPA, including AB 1146, AB 874, and AB 1564 either do not alter in any material way the spirit or intent of the law or are redundant to changes found in AB 1355. There was also one proposed amendment – AB 846, that was withdrawn for consideration until next year but would have greatly enhanced the protections found in CCPA by creating a private right of action for notification and data usage failures.
Three of the changes found in AB 1355 are noteworthy given in some very real ways they chip away from the consumer-first thrust of CCPA. First, by modifying the definition of “personal information” to mean “reasonably capable of being associated with” a particular consumer or household, instead of just “capable of being [so] associated”, CCPA may get a reasonableness component that would give companies a strong new argument when defending a private action breach claim. Moreover, the AB 1355 amendments explicitly state that deidentified and aggregate information are exempt from CCPA – in effect, potentially giving social media platforms a sought-after CCPA safety hatch.
And finally, the AB 1355 Amendment states that the reasonableness of charging a different price or rate or providing a different level or quality of goods or services for the use of data should be measured in relation to the value of the personal information to the business and not to the consumer – as it was initially drafted. Given that most social media platforms and data brokers actually place very low values on specific consumer data, this change is of obvious great significance. Not surprising given the heavy lobbying, these and other changes actually benefit data merchants to the detriment of consumers.
On September 10, 2019, fifty-one CEOs wrote a letter to Congressional leaders asking them “to pass, as soon as possible, a comprehensive consumer data privacy law that strengthens protections for consumers and establishes a national privacy framework to enable continued innovation and growth in the digital economy.” The signatories to this letter come from a broad range of industries, including retail (Walmart, Amazon, Target, Macy’s), banking (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup), card brands (American Express, Visa, Mastercard), technology (Salesforce, SAP, SAS Institute, IBM, Dell, Qualcomm), as well as consumer goods and pharmaceutical (Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble), insurance (Chubb, New York Life Insurance, Principal, State Farm, USAA), and media-rich telecommunications (AT&T, Comcast).
Conspicuously absent from this list of companies are the two largest beneficiaries of Business Roundtable’s privacy initiative – Facebook and Google.
As set forth in their CEO letter: “Business Roundtable has released a Framework for Consumer Privacy Legislation (attached to this letter), which provides a detailed roadmap of issues that a federal consumer privacy law should address.” If one takes a look at this proposed Business Roundtable Framework, Facebook and Google’s sought-after end game comes better into focus – which is especially impressive given that neither company is even a current member of the Business Roundtable.
Business Roundtable’s Framework proposes that a new federal law “establish a national standard for breach notification that preempts state laws” and prevents the “state-by-state approach to regulating consumer privacy.” As well, the Business Roundtable Framework specifically also states that “[a] national consumer privacy law should not provide for a private right of action.”
Apparently, everything may fall into place for those who feast on consumer data. First, CCPA may have been weakened sufficiently to make 2020 not nearly the onerous compliance year most companies expected – especially since the tabling of AB 856 and its creation of a new right of action for breach of CCPA’s consumer notification and use provisions. Given California’s privacy statutes may very well end up being the model for a federal law, weakening CCPA before pushing for a federal law was the necessary initial step in this two-step dance.
While others may have publicly taken up their fight, Google and Facebook are smoking cigars in a dark backroom somewhere laughing at how brilliantly their plan may ultimately play out.
UPDATE: October 16,
Without any fanfare or even a mention on the California Governor’s website, Governor Newsom quietly signed into law all of the CCPA amendments put on his table, including AB 1355 which amends § 1798.140(o)(2) of the CCPA, to provide that personal information “does not include consumer information that is deidentified or aggregate consumer information” – making all social media platforms raise a toast to their victory, and amends Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.150(a)(1) of the CCPA to reaffirm that class-action lawsuits may be brought only for data breaches when personal information is “nonencrypted and nonredacted” and thereby shut out wide swaths of potential claims.
Despite the recent public trend of paying these extortion demands, the FBI has long advocated not paying a ransom in response to a ransomware attack. Specifically, the FBI has said: “Paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee an organization that it will get its data back—we’ve seen cases where organizations never got a decryption key after having paid the ransom. Paying a ransom not only emboldens current cyber criminals to target more organizations, it also offers an incentive for other criminals to get involved in this type of illegal activity. And finally, by paying a ransom, an organization might inadvertently be funding other illicit activity associated with criminals.”
In fact, some have argued that by having insurance for this exposure the industry itself is actually at the root of increased ransomware activity. Those in the security industry correctly point out that what drives these actors turns more on quick conversion rates rather than whether an insurer stands behind a victim. To suggest the insurance industry is the cause of this problem gives threat actors way too much credit while completely ignoring the benefits derived from the cyber insurance underwriting process.
In the same way it is never too late to go back to school, it is never too late to begin importing a more robust security and privacy profile into an organization – which is the only real way to diminish the risk of a ransomware attack. As suggested in 2016: “Given the serious threat of ransomware, businesses large and small are reminded to at least do the basics – train staff regarding email and social media policies, implement minimum IT security protocols, regularly backup data, plan for disaster, and regularly test your plans.”
On July 24, 2019, the FTC filed its Stipulated Order requiring that Facebook comply with newly-imposed privacy requirements for a period of twenty years. The most noteworthy aspect of this Order, however, does not relate to the specifics of this compliance framework – which can easily be addressed with the right counsel. Rather, the requirement that is more challenging for Facebook is the one creating an “Independent Privacy Committee” within Facebook’s Board of Directors “consisting of Independent Directors, all of whom” have “(1) the ability to understand corporate compliance and accountability programs and to read and understand data protection and privacy policies and procedures, and (2) such other relevant privacy and compliance experience reasonably necessary to exercise his or her duties on the Independent Privacy Committee.”
Such specific requirements regarding the capabilities of a Board member are more than a bit unusual. Given the fiduciary responsibilities of Board members as well as the reputations of those willing to become members of this “Independent Privacy Committee”, this novel requirement may actually do something to curtail future privacy transgressions.
There is no doubt the FTC resolution was Facebook’s well-orchestrated attempt at rehabilitating its tattered reputation. As stated in Facebook’s blog response: “Billions of people around the world use our products to make their lives richer and to help their organizations thrive. That makes it especially important that the people who use our platform can trust that their information is protected. This agreement is an unambiguous commitment to do that.” Indeed, this agreement may even be marketed as a way of bolstering dwindling user engagement.
Using a tone that permeated for much of the hearing, Sen. John Kennedy ignored Facebook’s participation in a Swiss Association that purportedly leaves Facebook with little control over Libra and instead mocked: “Facebook wants to control the monetary supply. What could possibly go wrong?” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reinforced this lack of trust when he said that Facebook was dangerous because it did not “respect the power of the technologies they are playing with, like a toddler who has gotten his hands on a book of matches, Facebook has burned down the house over and over, and called every arson a ‘learning experience.'”
On a more substantive side, the hearing was driven by a concern for privacy rights. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Marcus suggested that Facebook would not monetize users’ data related to Libra because no financial or account data from the Libra network would be shared with Facebook: “We’ve heard loud and clear from people, they don’t want those two types of data streams connected.”
Even though it did not garner much public analysis, Chairman Crapo’s Statement provides an important privacy perspective that may also set the table for future legislative action: “Individuals are the rightful owners of their data. They should be granted a certain set of privacy rights, and the ability to protect those rights through informed consent, including full disclosure of the data that is being gathered and how it is being used.”
And, despite all of his protestations to the contrary, in his own prepared testimony, Mr. Marcus actually provides a rough roadmap detailing how the financial and transactional data obtained by Calibra could directly bolster Facebook’s data surveillance revenue.
Specifically, Mr. Marcus states: “The Calibra wallet will let users send Libra to almost anyone with a smartphone, similar to how they might send a text message, and at low-to-no cost. We expect that the Calibra wallet will ultimately be one of many services, and one of many digital wallets, available to consumers on the Libra network. We do not expect Calibra to make money at the outset, and Calibra customers’ account and financial information will not be shared with Facebook, Inc., and as a result cannot be used for ad targeting. Our first goal is to create utility and adoption, enabling people around the world— especially the unbanked and underbanked—to take part in the financial ecosystem. But we expect that the Calibra wallet will be immediately beneficial to Facebook more broadly because it will allow many of the 90 million small- and medium-sized businesses that use the Facebook platform to transact more directly with Facebook’s many users, which we hope will result in consumers and businesses using Facebook more. That increased usage is likely to yield greater advertising revenue for Facebook.”
To suggest that the mere ancillary use of Facebook’s platforms by Calibra users will alone cause an increase in advertising revenue makes little sense. The only way Calibra will yield greater “advertising revenue” to Facebook is directly related to the well-understood increase in value user data would have after alignment takes place between transaction data and the other data obtained from Facebook’s platforms and services. Indeed, advertisers have long recognized that personalization data is not nearly as useful as relevance data.
A long-term goal of Facebook’s Libra project, namely combining user data with associated financial and transactional data, should not be considered well-hidden. Mr. Marcus’ written testimony all but confirms Facebook will eventually harvest transactional and KYC data: “Calibra will not share customers’ account information or financial data with Facebook unless people agree to permit such sharing.” Indeed, Sen. Pat Toomey specifically asked Mr. Marcus whether Facebook intended to seek user consent to monetize Calibra-derived financial data and Mr. Marcus incredibly responded: “I can’t think of any reason right now for us to do this.” Really?
House Financial Services Committee Hearing of July 17, 2019
One major difference between the Senate hearing conducted on July 16, 2019 and the House Financial Services Committee hearing of July 17, 2019 was the sort of testimony provided by industry experts. Even though the Senate smartly sought testimony from Wall Street and blockchain industry expert Caitlin Long, unlike with the House, there were no one educating the Senate on Calibra’s privacy issues.
For example, MIT Professor Gary Gensler’s prepared House testimony lays out a number of questions regarding privacy that Facebook should answer at some point: “We know that many of the most intrusive privacy practices of concern to privacy regulators have actually been subject to some form of consumer consent. So, it will be essential to conduct a more thorough analysis of what uses of Libra data should be allowed and which uses should be prohibited. How would such restrictions be monitored and enforced? What are the limited exceptions and might Calibra broadly seek customer consent in the form of standard user agreements? It would be likely that Calibra would want to commercialize this data. At a minimum, without sharing the raw transaction data from customers’ Calibra Wallets, it would still likely analyze such data to earn money either through advertisements or by offering targeted services to wallet holders.”
As well, in the prepared written testimony of Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, there is a long discussion explaining why Facebook is a “Corporate Surveillance Leviathan” that cannot be trusted with the proposed Calibra wallet.
The House Hearing also raised the issue of whether Facebook would be able to pick and choose users of the Calibra wallet – potentially forcing persons to conform their behavior to Facebook standards. In one highlight of the House Hearing, Congressman Sean Duffy waved a twenty-dollar bill in the air while making the point that anyone, including persons who say horrible things, can use a twenty-dollar bill but: “Who can use Calibra?” In response, Mr. Marcus pointed out anyone who could satisfy Calibra KYC requirements – which then begged the loaded follow-up question from Congressman Duffy: “Could Milo Yiannopoulos and Louis Farrakhan use Calibra [given they are both banned from Facebook]?” In response, Mr. Marcus said that an applicable policy hasn’t yet been written but that it was “an important question that [Facebook] needed to be thoughtful about.”
Given Facebook’s poor track record – indeed, former Facebook executives readily acknowledge Facebook holds too much market power and should not be trusted going forward, these and other “important questions” must be answered as soon as possible.
According to the ICO, the massive fine was ultimately based on the harvesting of personal data of approximately 500,000 customers only one month after GDPR became enforceable. The ICO investigation uncovered that “a variety of information was compromised by poor security arrangements at the company, including log in, payment card, and travel booking details as well name and address information.”
Given that the ICO’s final decision will take into consideration a formal response from British Airways and other data protection authorities, the fine will likely be modified in same way – this is also likely given there were new security procedures implemented by British Airways, there is no present evidence of fraud, and British Airways has already threatened an appeal.
Facebook’s crypto advertising ban and duopolistic reach pretty much sums up why potential users should be careful before jumping on the Libra bandwagon. In what can only be considered ironic, the “Libra Coin” is not even a true cryptocurrency or even built on a blockchain – it is apparently the token for a permissioned payment network that is partially decentralized while requiring the disclosure of sensitive authentication data as well as use of the Calibra wallet owned and operated by Facebook itself. Most importantly, as a node on the network Facebook will also have access to all consumer transaction data flowing on the network. Like icing on a global cake, by being part owner of a de facto bank, Facebook will also get to share in any float interest.
Those premier venture firms and companies who have anted up to align with Facebook’s project may believe in the collective end game but to align now with Facebook simply because of its tremendous reach will likely be a mistake for them as well as the consuming public.
On June 6, 2019, Maine joined a chorus of state legislatures moving on data privacy – this time requiring providers of broadband Internet services to obtain express consent before using a consumer’s personal information. Specifically, the new Maine law reads: “A provider may use, disclose, sell or permit access to a customer’s customer personal information if the customer gives the provider express, affirmative consent to such use, disclosure, sale or access. A customer may revoke the customer’s consent under this paragraph at any time.”
Maine’s law is even more restrictive than California’s Consumer Privacy Act which will deploy an “opt out” mechanism requiring the consumer to inform data processors of their preference. Both Californians and Mainers will have to wait until 2020 to benefit from their respective data privacy laws – with the Maine statute taking effect on July 1, 2020.
As reported in The Hill, tech lobbyists are now exerting their best efforts on obtaining a federal law that will moderate this and other consumer privacy state gains – which is not surprising given even stricter data privacy laws percolating in other states. Whether or not certain data privacy provisions die in a preemption skirmish, data rights will continue their reimagination by market forces so lobbyists alone can never prevail in their clients’ war against true individual data ownership.
New York now is now moving on a bill, S5642, that is even more protective than the California Consumer Privacy Act while New Jersey is in the process of merging two proposed bills that may lead in the same direction. There has been opposition to these proposed laws by those companies who have the most to lose by stringent data privacy controls.
If passed, however, these new laws may actually prod Congress to finally move on a comprehensive privacy framework – one that might preempt aggressive laws such as the ones proposed by New York and New Jersey and the one already passed in California, in favor of a much more tempered approach.
In other words, the Internet Association and its lobbying partners may actually win the war if these bills are enacted and it can just get Congress to act in a preemptive manner. Thankfully, the momentum has been consistently on the side of consumer protection and any hope of bipartisan action on the part of Congress remains a long-shot given the current political environment.