Category Archives: Risk Management

University of Rochester Medical Center Gets Hit with a $3 Million HIPAA Fine

On November 5, 2019, the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) agreed to a corrective action plan and payment of $3 million due to the 2013 and 2017 loss of an unencrypted flash drive and theft of an unencrypted laptop, respectively.

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.

Back to School for Ransomware

Even though the first significant uptick in ransomware attacks began over three years ago, a steady increase in frequency and severity has likely now made ransomware exploits the number one security threat faced by most businesses today.  McAfee places the ransomware growth rate for the last quarter at 118%.  Many smaller businesses were previously on notice but chose to ignore the warning signs. Thankfully, after the 2017 ransomware attacks unleashed by the Wannacry strain of Cryptolocker, some companies did address ransomware risk by implementing better employee training while others decided to upgrade legacy software and initiate offsite backups.

Those who did not adequately address this risk, however, are now facing much larger extortion demands.  Also, the risk landscape has changed dramatically over the past several years with  ransomware becoming an equal opportunity attack that will now target local governments as well as dental offices. Indeed, even first grade students are now being impacted by network security intrusions that not too long ago only previously targeted only large universities. 

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.”

Another result of this increase in activity has been an increase in insurance purchased to cover an extortion demand as well as the related expenses incurred during a ransomware attack.  For example, the City of Baltimore may soon approve spending $835,000 for $20 million in coverage but only because it previously sustained a ransomware attack that set it back over $18 million

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.” 

Will Proposed NY and NJ Data Privacy Laws Lead to Federal Preemption?

On June 5, 2019, the NY State Senate passed the Stop Hacks and Improve Electronic Data Security Act (SHIELD Act) to beef up its data breach notification law whereas a month earlier the New Jersey Governor signed into law an amendment to the New Jersey data breach notification law.  This is the first act in what may lead to significant new privacy laws emerging from these sister states.

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.

OCR Snags $3 Million HIPAA Settlement For Insecure Web Server

On May 6, 2019, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that Tennessee-based Touchstone Medical Imaging agreed to pay $3,000,000 and adopt a corrective action plan that includes the adoption of business associate agreements, completion of an enterprise-wide risk analysis, and additional comprehensive policies and procedures applying HIPAA Rules. Touchstone – which provides diagnostic medical imaging services, was notified in May 2014 by the FBI that one of its FTP servers allowed uncontrolled access to protected health information (PHI).  This uncontrolled access “permitted search engines to index the PHI of Touchstone’s patients, which remained visible on the Internet even after the server was taken offline.”

During OCR’s investigation, Touchstone acknowledged that the PHI of more than 300,000 patients was exposed including, names, birth dates, social security numbers, and addresses.  OCR’s investigation found that Touchstone “did not thoroughly investigate the security incident until several months after notice of the breach”.  As a result, Touchstone’s notification to individuals affected by the breach was considered untimely.   

Given last year’s summary judgment win by OCR and the facts presented by the Touchstone incident, it is not surprising that this significant settlement – which was one of the largest to date, was reached.  FTP servers have long been a threat vector – even if set up and run properly, so not unlike the clarion calls initiated for encryption and social engineering training, back office IT support should be sophisticated enough to adopt a means of file transfer that applies state of the art security.

Vermont Steps in Front of California with New Privacy Law Aimed at Brokers


Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to enact a privacy law specifically targeting data brokers. This law, which will become fully effective on January 1, 2019, requires state registration of any business “that knowingly collects and sells or licenses to third parties the brokered personal information of a consumer with whom the business does not have a direct relationship”.

According to Guidance provided earlier this month by the Attorney General’s Office, the type of consumer information subject to this new law includes: “People with incomes over $100,000,” “People who like to play billiards,” or “People preparing for a wedding.” 

Data broker registrations must include information regarding how consumers can opt out of data collection and sales as well as disclosure regarding the number of “data broker security breaches” sustained in the prior year.   This beach notification requirement exists in addition to the one created by Vermont’s data breach law.

In addition to an annual registration, data brokers must also maintain certain protective measures involving those administrative, technical and physical safeguards appropriate for the scope and size of the business or face a potential unfair or deceptive practice claim under the state’s consumer protection law.   

The statutory civil penalties of this new law are actually quite limited given that a data broker required to register who fails to do so will be subject to a penalty of $50 for each day it fails to register, beginning February 1, 2019, up to a maximum of $10,000 per year.  The real bite is found in the potential civil action that may be brought under Vermont’s Consumer Protection Law, namely potential treble damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees. By linking privacy violations with an established consumer protection law, the Vermont statute nicely meshes existing law – and related interpretative rulings, into an effective privacy battle axe.   

While Vermont may never become a real challenger to California when it comes to privacy laws or regulations, this new law could have a ripple effect with other states eventually providing similar protections.  And, given the call for a federal privacy law to harmonize patchwork state laws, the statute can also very easily be a model for certain provisions in a new federal omnibus privacy law.  Combined with other laws that will be vigorously enforced regarding consumer consent, the coming year is shaping up as a strong one for consumer privacy rights.

AT&T crypto theft case may hasten new insurance exclusions

On August 15, 2018, crypto-enthusiast Michael Terpin filed a 69-page Complaint against AT&T in the Central District of California.  This federal action – a fifteen-count missive from Greenberg Glusker, seeks compensation of $24,000,000 for stolen cryptocurrencies as well as punitive damages in the amount of $200,000,000.  Terpin’s counsel seeks to get around standard contractual limitations and arbitration language by claiming that AT&T violated every possible California consumer statute on the books.

At its essence, the lawsuit alleges AT&T did not “implement and maintain reasonable security procedures and practices” regarding personal information and protect it “from unauthorized access, destruction, use, modification or disclosure” as evidenced by a “January 7, 2018 SIM swap fraud” conducted by a criminal who was able to convince an AT&T store employee to give him Mr. Terpin’s SIM card.  Complaint ¶ 238.

In order to obtain recovery in federal court, Terpin’s counsel will have to get around standard ADR language and damages limitations typically found in mobile carrier agreements.  More than likely, the valiant efforts of Greenberg Glusker will be to no avail – with the eventual result this case will move down the well-traveled road of arbitration without any punitive damages or massive discovery in sight.  The Supreme Court authority for such a result is quite extensive and may be why the Complaint is written in such flowery and emotional prose.

No matter what forum eventually takes on this case, it raises numerous issues that percolate beyond the four corners of the Complaint.  For example, will AT&T’s insurer eventually defend or pay out on this claim?  If so, which coverage grants will be triggered?  And, if there is coverage, will ISO or major insurance carriers develop a standard insurance exclusion to bar cryptocurrency theft claims in the future?   As it moves through the California federal court system, this case will definitely have consequences for corporations well beyond AT&T.

EU-US Privacy Shield may soon be suspended

The EU-US Privacy Shield may finally be in actual jeopardy.  It was previously thought that given the high stakes, this data transfer accommodation implemented as a replacement for the judicially invalidated Safe Harbor program was too important an agreement to be withdrawn and that only another judicial ruling could render its death knell.  That is no longer the case.   A vote today by the European Parliament made sure of that.

As reported by the IAPP,  on July 5, 2018 the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 303 to 223 votes and 29 abstentions to have the European Commission suspend the EU-US Privacy Shield “unless the U.S. is fully compliant” by September 1, 2018.    This is the second September review of the EU-US Privacy Shield.

Between the GDPR requirements left out of the EU-US Privacy Shield, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco that still dogs Facebook, the US’s adoption of the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (CLOUD Act) – a statute that expressly allows access to trans-border personal data, the US’s pulling out of the Iran deal despite strong pressure from the EU, and the current tariff barbs being sent across the Atlantic, the long-term health of EU-US Privacy Shield can no longer be considered a given.   Companies who have been reliant on this data transfer accommodation should certainly consider alternatives as soon as possible.

UPDATE:  October 23, 2019

As reported in TechCrunch, the EU-US Privacy Shield has withstood its last review given the appointment of an ombudsperson role but there still remains pending litigation targeting it.

New California law provides statutory damages for data incidents

With the June 28, 2018 signing of The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, data breach class counsel are rejoicing that they finally have a private right of action backed with statutory damages.  Even though there were previous statutory remedies for privacy violations, the recent California law has gone where no other law has gone before by expressly providing a private right of action for a data breach that also allows for a minimum statutory amount.  Not surprisingly given it was the first state to pass a breach notification law, the California legislature again led the way.

After certain data incidents involving the loss of consumer data, California consumers will have beginning on January 1, 2020 a private right of action that can also be brought on a class-wide basis.   Specifically, any consumer whose unencrypted or nonredacted personal information “is subject to an unauthorized access and exfiltration, theft, or disclosure as a result of the business’ violation of the duty to implement and maintain reasonable security procedures and practices appropriate to the nature of the information to protect the personal information may institute a civil action . . . to recover damages in an amount not less than one hundred dollars ($100) and not greater than seven hundred and fifty ($750) per consumer per incident or actual damages.”   Section 1798.150(a)(1).

Despite being groundbreaking, there are still numerous hurdles class counsel must surmount before a class can be certified.  For example, the private right of action may not be allowed unless the compromised information is subject to unauthorized use.  Section 1798.150(a)(1).   Accordingly, those incidents where unauthorized use is not in issue are not subject to the statute.

Moreover, the law can only be used against a business with “gross revenues in excess of twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000)” or one that purchases personal data on “50,000 or more consumers, households, or devices” or one that “derives 50 percent or more of its annual revenues from selling consumers’ personal information.” Section 1798.140(c).

Curiously, the law allows a business to “cure” its security violation; and thereby avoid suit, but leaves to the imagination exactly how that curing process would play out.   Section 1798.150(b)(1).

And finally, this private right of action can be withdrawn if the California Attorney General files its own suit after being provided notice of a consumer’s lawsuit.  Section 1798.150(b)(3).   The AG’s office has 30 days to decide whether or not to file suit after being provided with the consumer’s lawsuit notice.

Notwithstanding the last-minute changes made to this last-minute statute, it still provides California consumers with the country’s most expansive statutory privacy rights– rights that will be immediately deployed by class counsel after 2020.   Most analysis on this new law, however, has focused on comparing it to the EU’s GDPR privacy regime – a recently implemented privacy regime that impacts many  US-based companies.    In addition to the privacy requirements, companies processing significant amounts of consumer personal data should also take the class action risk very seriously and if they do not already purchase insurance for that risk, they should at least evaluate transferring some of this liability risk by way of the privacy and data security insurance long been available to most any company.

UPDATE:  September 28, 2018

SB211 was signed into law largely to “technically correct” errors in the law but nevertheless made two significant changes to Section 1798.150 when it removed the prior requirement that consumers notify the Attorney General prior to bringing any action for a data breach and removed the prior requirement that the Attorney General could bar consumer plaintiffs from bringing suit.  These two significant changes will certainly make for a very interesting class action year in 2020.

UPDATE:  February 26, 2019

On February 22, 2019, a proposed amendment to the law was proposed that would do away with a cure provision, expand the statutory damages provision to any violation of the law, and limit the role of the Attorney General in policing violations.  If passed, these changes will significantly alter the reach of the law by making the plaintiff’s bar’s arsenal even wider and the law’s penalties that much stronger.

OCR wins $4.3 million HIPAA Victory against MD Anderson

On June 18, 2018, the the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) posted a press release announcing its summary judgment victory against the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson) – a ruling that will require MD Anderson to pay $4,348,000 in civil money penalties to OCR.   According to the press release, this is only the second HIPAA summary judgment victory in OCR’s history and the $4.3 million is the fourth largest amount ever awarded to OCR for HIPAA violations.

The June 1, 2018 Administrative Law Judge’s decision ultimately hinged on a stolen unencrypted laptop and several lost unencrypted USB thumb drives containing “identifying information such as patient names, addresses, and Social Security numbers; and clinical information such as diagnoses, assessments, prognoses, and treatment regimes” of a total of 33,500 individuals.  Decision at 2.

The hefty fine was based on the fact MD Anderson knew encryption was an essential risk management tool since 2006 yet did not get around to fully deploying encrypted devices until after the losses in question.  According to the ALJ, MD Anderson before then made only “half-hearted and incomplete efforts at encryption”.  Decision at 5.

According to the ALJ:

The question is whether Respondent took the necessary steps to address the risk that it had identified – the potential for data loss due to the storage of ePHI on unencrypted devices. As I have explained, the failure to address that risk is the sum and substance ofRespondent’s noncompliance. Had it done so, then unauthorized acts by Respondent’s employees might be relevant to the issue of compliance. But, failure by Respondent to take the security measures that it had identified as necessary renders irrelevant the issue of whether employees were playing by the rules, because that failure created a risk whether or not Respondent’s employees did so.

Decision at 14 (emphasis in original).

This latest OCR action may very well be appealed given the jurisdictional arguments made by MD Anderson.  No matter what the final appellate result, however, the ruling should slam the lid on any covered entity ever questioning again whether encryption is worth the cost of deployment.     Whether it is from a state enforcement action or OCR settlements based on vendor negligence, laptops stolen from a car, or a USB thumb drive improperly taken from an IT department, when it comes to encryption an ounce of prevention is definitely worth at least a pound of cure.

Supreme Court takes Google cy pres fund case

On April 30, 2018, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari so that it could determine whether a settlement in a privacy class action against Google was “fair, reasonable, and adequate” when the roughly $5 million settlement only went to cy pres recipients rather than actual class members.  Specifically, the Court is to decide:

Whether, or in what circumstances, a cy pres award of class action proceeds that provides no direct relief to class members supports class certification and comports with the requirement that a settlement binding class members must be “fair, reasonable, and adequate.”

As previously recognized, the use of cy pres settlements has been a troublesome trend in privacy class action settlements given it allows plaintiffs’ counsel to quickly file and resolve class actions before  actual damages can be made readily apparent.  Indeed, attorney generals have objected  to cy pres settlements given the lack of redress available to victims.  Given Justice Roberts prior pronouncement on the topic, it may very well be the case that cy pres funding  – which previously only took place in settlements after plaintiffs were actually compensated, may very well no longer be an acceptable means of quickly ending a privacy class action.