On August 17, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced settlements with 13 companies on charges that they misled consumers by claiming that they were certified members of the U.S.-EU or U.S.-Swiss Safe Harbor programs when in fact their certifications had lapsed or never existed in the first place. The FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of two previous settlementsreached in late May 2015 with companies that had lapsed certifications despite representations to the contrary made to online consumers. This recent activity by the FTC serves as yet another reminder to businesses to monitor their Safe Harbor program certification renewal dates and to exercise care when making representations in privacy policies related to Safe Harbor program certification.

The Safe Harbor programs provide a method for U.S. companies to transfer personal data outside of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) consistent with the requirements of the European Union Directive on Data Protection or the Swiss Federal Act on Data Protection. To participate in a Safe Harbor program, a company must self-certify to the U.S. Department of Commerce that it complies with seven privacy principles and related requirements. Once certified, a company is required to renew its certification with the Department of Commerce each year to maintain its status as a current member of the Safe Harbor program.

The companies at the center of the recent enforcement actions represent a variety of industries, including app development, pharmaceutical and biotechnology research, medical waste processing and wholesale food manufacturing. This broad industry representation suggests to us that the FTC is committed to ongoing enforcement. Accordingly, we want to remind readers of these tips:

  • Check your company’s certification status to ensure that it is marked “current” on the Department of Commerce website: https://safeharbor.export.gov/list.aspx;
  • Review any privacy policies and online statements referencing the Safe Harbor programs to ensure that they properly reflect the certification status and the company’s actual privacy and data security practices;
  • Institute a systemic reminder six months prior to the recertification date that triggers compliance review activity with a due date for completion prior to the recertification deadline, together with a requirement that the actual online recertification be completed prior to the annual deadline;
  • Remove all references to the Safe Harbor programs from publicly available privacy policies and statements if the company’s certification status is unclear; and
  • Review substantive compliance with the Safe Harbor programs and institute corrective action and controls to ensure that compliance is maintained.