Privacy Monday: October 7, 2013

by Mintz Levin - Privacy & Security Matters
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Oyez! Oyez!

Despite the government shutdown, the Supreme Court is in for the 2013-2014 session.   There are a couple of privacy cases on the agenda:

U.S. v. Wurie and Riley v. California

At issue: Separate appeals over whether police must obtain a warrant to search data on the cellphone of a person under arrest.

The cases: Criminal suspects in Massachusetts and California were convicted, in part after phone numbers, text messages, and addresses obtained from personal electronic devices linked them to criminal drug and gang activity.

The arguments: The Supreme Court has issued mixed privacy rulings in the past two years: allowing criminal suspects to be DNA-tested upon arrest yet before conviction, to help solve “cold” cases; but saying in most cases, search warrants are needed before GPS electronic surveillance of vehicles, or blood tests for suspected drunk drivers.

The impact: Chief Justice John Roberts recently said his court’s biggest challenge in coming years will be to articulate what constitutional protections “apply to new issues and new technology.”

Also: In Re Electronic Privacy Information Center (13-58) – A direct challenge to the National Security Agency’s surveillance of domestic telephone communication records. A privacy rights group claims a secret federal court improperly authorized the government to collect the electronic records. The court for a variety of procedural and substantive reasons is unlikely to accept the case at this time, perhaps waiting for it to percolate in the lower courts.

Twitter Files for Public Offering

Twitter announced its filing for an IPO and a close look into the public offering document discloses a few privacy and cybersecurity “risk factors”:

Our business is subject to complex and evolving U.S. and foreign laws and regulations. These laws and regulations are subject to change and uncertain interpretation, and could result in claims, changes to our business practices, monetary penalties, increased cost of operations or declines in user growth, user engagement or ad engagement, or otherwise harm our business.

We are subject to a variety of laws and regulations in the United States and abroad that involve matters central to our business, including privacy, rights of publicity, data protection, content regulation, intellectual property, competition, protection of minors, consumer protection and taxation. Many of these laws and regulations are still evolving and being tested in courts and could be interpreted or applied in ways that could harm our business, particularly in the new and rapidly evolving industry in which we operate. The introduction of new products or services may subject us to additional laws and regulations. In addition, foreign data protection, privacy, consumer protection, content regulation and other laws and regulations are often more restrictive than those in the United States. In particular, the European Union and its member states traditionally have taken broader views as to types of data that are subject to privacy and data protection, and have imposed greater legal obligations on companies in this regard. A number of proposals are pending before federal, state and foreign legislative and regulatory bodies that could significantly affect our business. For example, regulation relating to the 1995 European Union Data Protection Directive is currently being considered by European legislative bodies that may include more stringent operational requirements for entities processing personal information and significant penalties for non-compliance. Similarly, there have been a number of recent legislative proposals in the United States, at both the federal and state level, that would impose new obligations in areas such as privacy and liability for copyright infringement by third parties. The U.S. government, including the Federal Trade Commission, or the FTC, and the Department of Commerce, has announced that it is reviewing the need for greater regulation for the collection of information concerning user behavior on the Internet, including regulation aimed at restricting certain online tracking and targeted advertising practices. Additionally, recent amendments to U.S. patent laws may affect the ability of companies, including us, to protect their innovations and defend against claims of patent infringement. We currently allow use of our platform without the collection of extensive personal information, such as age. We may experience additional pressure to expand our collection of personal information in order to comply with new and additional regulatory demands or we may independently decide to do so. Having additional personal information may subject us to additional regulation. Further, it is difficult to predict how existing laws and regulations will be applied to our business and the new laws and regulations to which we may become subject, and it is possible that they may be interpreted and applied in a manner that is inconsistent with our practices. These existing and proposed laws and regulations can be costly to comply with and can delay or impede the development of new products and services, result in negative publicity, significantly increase our operating costs, require significant time and attention of management and technical personnel and subject us to inquiries or investigations, claims or other remedies, including fines or demands that we modify or cease existing business practices.

Regulatory investigations and settlements could cause us to incur additional expenses or change our business practices in a manner materially adverse to our business.

We have been subject to regulatory investigations in the past, and expect to continue to be subject to regulatory scrutiny as our business grows and awareness of our brand increases. In March 2011, to resolve an investigation into various incidents, we entered into a settlement agreement with the FTC that, among other things, requires us to establish an information security program designed to protect non-public consumer information and also requires that we obtain biennial independent security assessments. The obligations under the settlement agreement remain in effect until the latter of March 2, 2031, or the date 20 years after the date, if any, on which the U.S. government or the FTC files a complaint in federal court alleging any violation of the order. We expect to continue to be the subject of regulatory inquiries, investigations and audits in the future by the FTC and other regulators around the world.

It is possible that a regulatory inquiry, investigation or audit might result in changes to our policies or practices, and may cause us to incur substantial costs or could result in reputational harm, prevent us from offering certain products, services, features or functionalities, cause us to incur substantial costs or require us to change our business practices in a manner materially adverse to our business. Violation of existing or future regulatory orders, settlements or consent decrees could subject us to substantial monetary fines and other penalties that could negatively affect our financial condition and operating results.

Even though Twitter is a global platform for public self-expression and conversation, user trust regarding privacy is important to the growth of users and the increase in user engagement on our platform, and privacy concerns relating to our products and services could damage our reputation and deter current and potential users and advertisers from using Twitter.

From time to time, concerns have been expressed by governments, regulators and others about whether our products, services or practices compromise the privacy of users and others. Concerns about, governmental or regulatory actions involving our practices with regard to the collection, use, disclosure or security of personal information or other privacy-related matters, even if unfounded, could damage our reputation, cause us to lose users and advertisers and adversely affect our operating results. While we strive to comply with applicable data protection laws and regulations, as well as our own posted privacy policies and other obligations we may have with respect to privacy and data protection, the failure or perceived failure to comply may result, and in some cases has resulted, in inquiries and other proceedings or actions against us by governments, regulators or others, as well as negative publicity and damage to our reputation and brand, each of which could cause us to lose users and advertisers, which could have an adverse effect on our business.

Any systems failure or compromise of our security that results in the unauthorized access to or release of our users’ or advertisers’ data could significantly limit the adoption of our products and services, as well as harm our reputation and brand and, therefore, our business. We expect to continue to expend significant resources to protect against security breaches. The risk that these types of events could seriously harm our business is likely to increase as we expand the number of products and services we offer, increase the size of our user base and operate in more countries.

Governments and regulators around the world are considering a number of legislative and regulatory proposals concerning data protection. In addition, the interpretation and application of consumer and data protection laws or regulations in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are often uncertain and in flux, and in some cases, laws or regulations in one country may be inconsistent with, or contrary to, those of another country. It is possible that these laws and regulations may be interpreted and applied in a manner that is inconsistent with our practices. If so, in addition to the possibility of fines, this could result in an order requiring that we change our practices, which could have an adverse effect on our business and operating results. Complying with new laws and regulations could cause us to incur substantial costs or require us to change our business practices in a manner materially adverse to our business.

If our security measures are breached, or if our products and services are subject to attacks that degrade or deny the ability of users to access our products and services, our products and services may be perceived as not being secure, users and advertisers may curtail or stop using our products and services and our business and operating results could be harmed.

Our products and services involve the storage and transmission of users’ and advertisers’ information, and security breaches expose us to a risk of loss of this information, litigation and potential liability. We experience cyber-attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis, and as a result, unauthorized parties have obtained, and may in the future obtain, access to our data or our users’ or advertisers’ data. For example, in February 2013, we disclosed that sophisticated unknown third parties had attacked our systems and may have had access to limited information for approximately 250,000 users. Our security measures may also be breached due to employee error, malfeasance or otherwise. Additionally, outside parties may attempt to fraudulently induce employees, users or advertisers to disclose sensitive information in order to gain access to our data or our users’ or advertisers’ data or accounts, or may otherwise obtain access to such data or accounts. Since our users and advertisers may use their Twitter accounts to establish and maintain online identities, unauthorized communications from Twitter accounts that have been compromised may damage their reputations and brands as well as ours. Any such breach or unauthorized access could result in significant legal and financial exposure, damage to our reputation and a loss of confidence in the security of our products and services that could have an adverse effect on our business and operating results. Because the techniques used to obtain unauthorized access, disable or degrade service or sabotage systems change frequently and often are not recognized until launched against a target, we may be unable to anticipate these techniques or to implement adequate preventative measures. If an actual or perceived breach of our security occurs, the market perception of the effectiveness of our security measures could be harmed, we could lose users and advertisers and we may incur significant legal and financial exposure, including legal claims and regulatory fines and penalties. Any of these actions could have a material and adverse effect on our business, reputation and operating results.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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