In honor of Data Privacy Day, we provide the following “Top 10 for 2016.”  While the list is by no means exhaustive, it does provide some hot topics for organizations to consider in 2016.

  1. EU/U.S. Data Transfer (status of Safe Harbor).  On October 6, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner (Case C-362/14) that the voluntary Safe Harbor Program did not provide adequate protection to the personal data of EU citizens. The Safe Harbor Program was used extensively by organizations that needed to transfer data from the EU to the U.S. Post Schrems U.S. companies have been unclear what to do to transfer data out of the EU in a compliant manner. The ultimate resolution of this issue is one of the most anticipated privacy topics for 2016.
  2. Risk Assessment/Written Information Security Program. Many businesses remain unaware of how much personal and confidential information they maintain, who has access to it, how it is used and disclosed, how it is safeguarded, and so on. Getting a handle on a business’ critical information assets must be the first step, and is perhaps the most important step to tackling information risk. It is logically impossible to adequately safeguard something you are not aware exists. In fact, failing to conduct a risk assessment may subject the business to penalties under federal and/or state law. Even if adopting a written information security program (WISP) to protect personal information is not an express statutory or regulatory mandate in your state (as it is in MA, MD, TX, CT, etc.), having one is critical to addressing information risk. Importantly, an organization’s WISP should also address company data outside of the company’s control, such as data or information which is provided to vendors who provide services to an organization. Not only will a WISP better position a company when defending claims related to a data breach, it will also help the company manage and safeguard critical information and potentially avoid a breach from occurring in the first place.
  3. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  According to statistics compiled by WebRecon LLC, 3,710 TCPA lawsuits were filed in 2015, representing an increase of 45% over 2014. Demonstrating consistency, 2015 marked the 8th year in a row where the number of TCPA suits increased from the preceding year. Tellingly, 23.6% of those suits (877) were filed as putative class actions. With the recent SCOTUS decision in Campbell-Ewald making defense of class actions under the TCPA more difficult, we expect the number of TCPA suits to continue to grow in 2016. Many of these suits are not just aimed at large companies.  Instead, these suits are often focused on small businesses who may unknowingly violate the TCPA.  With statutory damages ranging from $500 to $1500 per violation (e.g. per fax/text sent or call made) these suits often result in potential damages in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  Understanding the FAQs for the TCPA and taking steps to comply with the TCPA is a great first step as we enter 2016.
  4. Industry Specific Guidance.  Whether it is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), organizations will need to remain vigilant in 2016 to ensure they are addressing industry specific rules or guidance regarding cybersecurity and the safeguarding of the information they maintain. This is especially true and more and more industry regulators recognize the significant cybersecurity risks which their organizations face.
  5. BYOD/COPE.  More and more businesses are realizing the risks of allowing employees to utilize their own electronic devices in the workplace and are turning to Bring Your Own Device (“BYOD”) programs to diminish some of these risks or abandoning such practices all together in favor of Corporate Owned Personally Enabled (“COPE)       programs.  If you are considering BYOD, you should review our comprehensive BYOD issues outline and determine whether BYOD or COPE is the best option for your organization.
  6. Investigating Social Media.  The use of social media continues to grow on a global scale, and the content available on a user’s profile or account is often being sought in connection with litigation and/or employment decisions.       While public content may generally be viewed without issue, employers need to be aware of how they are accessing social media content. This is especially true as the list of states protecting legislation to protect social media privacy continues to grow. In a litigation context, if private content is accessed improperly, serious repercussions can follow.
  7. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) & Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Enforcement Re: Data Security.  Both the FTC and FCC continued enforcements actions in 2015 in connection with companies’ alleged failure to properly safeguard data. FCC actions resulted in consent decrees which included penalties in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and mirrored previously consent decrees entered into by the FTC. However, 2015 decisions in cases stemming from the FTC’s actions found the FTC may have difficulty meeting its burden of proving that a company’s alleged unreasonable data security practices caused substantial consumer injury or that any consumer whose personal information was maintained by a company suffered any harm as a result of such alleged conduct. For 2016 it remains to be seen just how far the FCC and FTC will go to continue enforcement actions related to data security. Nevertheless, organizations still need to be conscious of the statements or promises they make concerning their data security practices and implement appropriate safeguards to protect the personal information they maintain.
  8. Employee Tracking/Wearables.  The devices we use and wear are able to gather large amounts of information – from an individual’s exact locations to extensive health and wellness data. As GPS enabled devices becomes more and more prevalent, employers are often faced with the  difficult decision balancing the risks of GPS use compared to the ability to obtain information about an employee’s whereabouts.  This is particularly true when an employee is absent from work, is traveling for business, or makes a representation as to their location which the employer questions for one reason or another.  Similarly, wellness programs seek to incentivize employees (including the members of their household) to live “healthier” lives. Wearable technology, which allows for the collection of data from employees and spouses (assuming they are utilizing similar technology) may raise issues under GINA which prohibits employers from providing incentives to obtain genetic information from employees. HIPAA too may apply to wearables and their collection of health-related data when related to the operation of a group health plan. While case law on these issues is ever evolving, clear answers are often difficult to come by.
  9. HIPAA Compliance. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) stated that in early 2016 it will launch Phase 2 of its audit program measuring compliance with HIPAA’s privacy, security and breach notification requirements by covered entities and business associates. We previously discussed, having the right documents in place can go a long way toward helping an organization survive an OCR HIPAA audit. Now that it is clear that these audits are coming early next year, it is important that covered entities and business associates invest the time in identifying and closing any HIPAA compliance gaps before an OCR investigator does this for them.       This is particularly true as some of the largest HIPAA settlements to date are less about harm, and more focused on compliance.
  10. Develop a Plan for Breach Notification. All state and federal data breach notification requirements currently in effect require notice be provided as soon as possible (with some setting forth specific time periods). Failing to respond appropriately could result in significant liability.  Employers need to be conscious of data breach issues as the leading cause of breaches is employee error. Developing a breach response plan is not only prudent but also may be required under federal or state law.  A proactive approach is often the simplest and cheapest way to avoid liability.

Be Vigilant and Watch for New Legislation. Managing data and ensuring its privacy, security and integrity is critical for businesses and individuals, and is increasingly becoming the subject of broad, complex regulation. As such, companies are left to navigate the constantly evolving web of growing state legislation and/or industry guidance. Organizations therefore need to be vigilant in order to remain compliant and competitive in this regard.