Already, 2014 has been an eventful year in the world of data breaches and cybersecurity. In addition to a flurry of litigation over high-profile breaches at the start of the year, the National Institute for Standards and Technology released its long-anticipated Cybersecurity Framework. The latest development is the recent decision in the closely-watched Wyndham case, in which a federal district court has just held that the Federal Trade Commission may use its “unfairness” authority under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act to enforce data-security standards. As a result, companies can expect the FTC to continue—and perhaps even expand—its efforts to regulate data-security standards through enforcement actions. And (as we have seen time and time again) where the FTC leads, the plaintiff’s bar often follows by filing class actions piggybacking on the agency’s allegations.
What happened in Wyndham?
The Wyndham action arose when a group of hackers allegedly penetrated the hospitality chain’s networks from 2008 to 2010, and compromised over a half-million payment card numbers. Already facing the substantial financial and reputational harm caused by the hackers’ crime, Wyndham next found itself facing a civil action filed by the FTC. In its initial and amended complaints, the FTC alleged that Wyndham had not maintained reasonable and appropriate data security measures. The agency claimed that Wyndham had engaged in (1) deception through alleged misrepresentations of the company’s data-security practices; and (2) “unfair” conduct based upon the harms allegedly suffered as a result of the purportedly unreasonable data-security practices.
Wyndham moved to dismiss the amended complaint, arguing, among other things, that the FTC’s “unfairness” authority does not extend to data security, that the FTC had failed to provide fair notice of what Section 5 of the FTC Act requires, and that Section 5 does not govern the security of payment card data. Wyndham—joined by a number of amici—pointed to the FTC’s lack of clear statutory authority, the continued legislative debates about data-security standards, and the FTC’s failure to establish standards through rulemaking as powerful reasons why the FTC lacked the authority to regulate data-security practices through Section 5 enforcement actions.
The district court was not persuaded. It concluded that more narrow data-security requirements enacted by Congress complemented, rather than precluded, the FTC’s assertion of authority under Section 5. The court also disagreed with defendants about the import of the ongoing legislative debates and prior statements by the FTC about the limits of its authority to regulate data security. The court thus declined “to carve out” what it understood to be “a data-security exception to the FTC’s authority.” The court likewise held that the FTC did not need to promulgate rules before exercising that authority, and that the FTC had adequately pled its unfairness claim. Finally, the court rejected the defendants’ challenge to the FTC’s deception claim.
Implications of the Wyndham decision
Many observers believe that the district court’s decision—and the resulting headlines—may serve to boost the FTC’s efforts to regulate data security. From our perspective, the decision (unless it is overturned on appeal) may have a significant effect on data-breach class actions as well for at least three reasons.
First, past FTC actions have spawned follow-on class litigation. Continued or possibly expanded FTC activity in the field of data security thus does not bode well for companies that must defend themselves first from hackers and then from regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys who seek to turn a company’s victimization into a basis for claimed liability.
Second, the district court’s highlighting of what it called “data-security insufficiencies” may foreshadow a focus on simplistic checklists rather than on risk-based data security practices. These supposed “insufficiencies” include allegations that the company stored unencrypted data, used outdated operating systems, and failed to require the use of complex passwords. These purported “insufficiencies” were described in a manner bereft of any context—and in particular, without any reference to the specific risks facing the company or the company’s overall security response. But data security is not one-size-fits-all. Context does matter. For that reason, the creation of a data security checklist through litigation, whether by the FTC or by a putative class representative, will benefit no one.
Third, the district court’s willingness to authorize case-by-case development of security standards—including through the use of consent orders that provide little or no guidance to non-parties—promises legal and regulatory uncertainty for companies in an area that cries out for stable and predictable guidelines. This uncertainty will only increase if class actions are allowed to further complicate the existing patchwork of data-security standards.
At bottom, the Wyndham decision is troubling for companies that seek to manage data-security risks and stave off unnecessary and inappropriate litigation. Indeed, the district court appeared resigned to the prospect of more litigation in this area, noting that “we live in a digital age that is rapidly evolving” and that will raise “a variety of thorny legal issues that Congress and the courts will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future.” Companies certainly should hope that the district court was wrong to forecast more litigation, but should be prepared for continued legal uncertainty and the opportunistic litigation it will generate.