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Why the FTC Can Go After Companies For Insufficient Data Security Allegations
March 6, 2015

Why the FTC Can Go After Companies For Insufficient Data Security Allegations

By: Jeffrey Hamlin

 

FTC seems more confident than ever in its authority to go after companies with insufficient data security measures. As of January 2015, FTC had settled 53 data-security enforcement actions, and FTC Senior Attorney Lesley Fair expects that number to increase.

Not everyone is sanguine about FTC’s enforcement efforts. Companies targeted for administrative action complain that the Commission is acting beyond its delegated powers under the Federal Trade Commission Act (the “FTCA”). So far, courts have declined to intervene in any administrative action that is not yet resolved at the agency level.

One such case involves LabMD, Inc., an Atlanta-based cancer-screening laboratory. At least nine years ago, someone downloaded onto the billing department manager’s computer a peer-to-peer file-sharing application called Limewire. Hundreds of files on the computer were designated for sharing on the network, including an insurance aging report that contained personal information for more than 9,000 LabMD customers. In 2008, a third party notified LabMD that the aging report was available on Limewire. The application was promptly removed from the billing department manager’s computer, but the damage allegedly had been done. According to FTC, authorities discovered in October 2012 that data from the aging report and other LabMD files were being used to commit identify theft against LabMD’s customers.

Ten months later, FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD alleging that it had failed to employ reasonable and appropriate data security measures. FTC further alleged that LabMD could have corrected the problems at relatively low cost with readily available security measures. By contrast, LabMD’s customers had no way of knowing about the failures and could not reasonably avoid the potential harms, such as identity theft, medical identity theft, and disclosure of sensitive, private, medical information. On these facts, FTC alleged that LabMD had committed an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA.

LabMD tried to get the administrative action dismissed on several grounds, including that the FTCA does not give the Commission express authority to regulate data-security practices. The Commission denied LabMD’s motion, explaining that Congress gave FTC broad jurisdiction to regulate unfair and deceptive practices that meet a three-factor test: section 5(n) provides that, in enforcement actions or rulemaking proceedings, the Commission has authority to determine that an act or practice is “unfair” if (i) it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is (ii) not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (iii) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. Commissioners noted that the FTCA as passed in 1918 granted FTC the authority to regulate unfair methods of competition. When courts took a narrow view of that authority, Congress responded by amending the FTCA to clarify that the Commission has authority to regulate unfair acts or practices that injure the public, regardless of whether they injure one’s competitors. According to the Commission, the statutory delegation is intentionally broad, giving FTC discretionary authority to define unfair practices on a flexible, incremental basis. For these and other reasons, the administrative action against LabMD would proceed.

Having failed to get the case dismissed, LabMD sought relief from the federal courts to no avail. On January 20, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed LabMD’s suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court explained that it lacked the power to decide LabMD’s claims in the absence of final agency action. FTC had filed a complaint and issued an order denying LabMD’s motion to dismiss. But neither was a reviewable agency action because neither represented a “consummation of the agency’s decision-making process.” Moreover, “no direct and appreciable legal consequences” flowed from the actions and “no rights or obligations had been determined” by them.

LabMD can challenge FTC’s data-security jurisdiction only after the Commission’s proceedings against it are final. That may well be too late. As a result of FTC’s enforcement action, the company was forced to wind down its operations more than a year ago.

LabMD is one of very few companies to test FTC’s data-security jurisdiction. In 2007, a federal court in Wyoming sided with FTC in holding that the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of customer phone records was an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA. The Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision on appeal.

More recently, a district court in New Jersey gave FTC a preliminary victory against Wyndham Worldwide Corporation. In that case, the court held that FTC’s unfairness jurisdiction extends to data-security practices that meet the three-factor test under Section 5(n). That decision is currently on appeal before the Third Circuit. During oral argument on March 3rd, the three-judge panel signaled little doubt that FTC has authority to regulate unreasonable cybersecurity practices. Instead, the panel was concerned with how the Commission exercises that authority—specifically, whether and how it has given notice as to what data security measures are considered to be “unfair.”