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Regulatory framework including public and private enforcement

As noted above, businesses in the United States are subject to a web of privacy laws and regulations at the federal and state level. Privacy and information security laws typically focus on the types of citizen and consumer data that are most sensitive and at risk, although if one of the sector-specific federal laws does not cover a particular category of data or information practice, then the FTC Act, and each state's 'little FTC Act' analogue, comes into play. As laid out below, these general consumer protection statutes broadly, flexibly and comprehensively proscribe unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Federal and state authorities, as well as private parties through litigation, actively enforce many of these laws, and companies also, in the shadow of this enforcement, take steps to regulate themselves. In short, even in the absence of a comprehensive federal privacy law, there are no substantial lacunae in the regulation of commercial data privacy in the United States. Indeed, in a sense, the United States has not one, but many, de facto privacy regulators overseeing companies' information privacy practices, with the major sources of privacy and information security law and standards in the United States that these regulators enforce – federal, state, private litigation and industry self-regulation – briefly outlined below.

i Privacy and data protection legislation and standards – federal law (including general obligations for data handlers and data subject rights)General consumer privacy enforcement agency – the FTC

Although there is no single omnibus federal privacy or cybersecurity law or designated central data protection authority, the FTC comes closest to assuming that role for consumer privacy in the United States.59 The statute establishing the FTC, the FTC Act, grants the Commission jurisdiction over essentially all business conduct in the country affecting interstate (or international) commerce and individual consumers.60 And while the Act does not expressly address privacy or information security, the FTC has interpreted the Act as giving it authority to regulate information privacy, data security, online advertising, behavioural tracking and other data-intensive, commercial activities – and accordingly to play a leading role in laying out general privacy principles for the modern economy.

The FTC has rooted its privacy and information security authority in Section 5 of the FTC Act, which charges the Commission with prohibiting 'unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce'.61 An act or practice is deceptive under Section 5 if there is a representation or omission of information likely to mislead a consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances; and the representation or omission is 'material'. The FTC has taken action against companies for deception when companies have made promises, such as those relating to the security procedures purportedly in place, and then not honoured or implemented them in practice. An act or practice is 'unfair' under Section 5 if it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that is not reasonably avoidable and lacks countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. (This statutory framework for determining when the FTC can penalise a practice as unfair is widely acknowledged to be a cost-benefit analysis test.) The FTC understands unfairness to encompass unexpected information practices, such as inadequate disclosure or actions that a consumer would find 'surprising' in the relevant context.

A few examples of what the FTC believes constitutes unfair or deceptive behaviour follow. First, the FTC takes the position that, among other things, companies must disclose their privacy practices adequately and that, in certain circumstances, this may require particularly timely, clear and prominent notice, especially for novel, unexpected or sensitive uses.62

Second, the FTC also takes the position that Section 5 generally prohibits a company from using previously collected personal data in ways that are materially different from, and less protective than, what it initially disclosed to the data subject, without first obtaining the individual's additional consent.63

Finally, the FTC staff has also issued extensive guidance on online behavioural advertising, emphasising four principles to protect consumer privacy interests:

  1. transparency and control, giving meaningful disclosure to consumers, and offering consumers choice about information collection;
  2. maintaining data security and limiting data retention;
  3. express consent before using information in a manner that is materially different from the privacy policy in place when the data was collected; and
  4. express consent before using sensitive data for behavioural advertising.64

The FTC has not, however, indicated that opt-in consent for the use of non-sensitive information is necessary in behavioural advertising.

In terms of enforcement, the FTC has frequently brought successful actions under Section 5 against companies that did not adequately disclose their data collection practices, failed to abide by the promises made in their privacy policies, failed to comply with their security commitments, or failed to provide a 'fair' level of security for consumer information. Although various forms of relief (such as injunctions and damages) for privacy-related wrongs are available, the FTC has frequently resorted to settling cases by issuing consent decrees. Such decrees generally provide for ongoing monitoring by the FTC, prohibit further violations of the law and subject businesses to substantial financial penalties for consent decree violations. These enforcement actions have been characterised as shaping a common law of privacy that guides companies' privacy practices.65

Cybersecurity and data breaches – federal law

Cybersecurity has been the focus of intense attention in the United States in recent years, and the legal landscape is dynamic and rapidly evolving. Nonetheless, at the time of writing, there is still no general law establishing federal data protection standards, and the FTC's exercise of its Section 5 authority, as laid out above, remains the closest thing to a general national-level cybersecurity regulation.

That said, recent years have brought a flurry of federal action related to cybersecurity. In 2015, Congress enacted the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act,66 which seeks to encourage cyberthreat information sharing within the private sector and between the private and public sectors by providing certain liability shields related to such sharing. The law also authorises network monitoring and certain other defensive measures, notwithstanding any other provision of law. In addition, Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden have issued a series of executive orders concerning cybersecurity, which have, among other things, directed the Department of Homeland Security and a number of other agencies to take steps to address cybersecurity and protect critical infrastructure and directed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop a cybersecurity framework.67 The latter, in particular, has been a noteworthy development: while the NIST Cybersecurity Framework provides voluntary guidance to help organisations manage cybersecurity risks, there is a general expectation that use of the framework (which is laudably accessible and adaptable) is a best practice consideration for companies holding sensitive consumer or proprietary business data. (The federal government's response to the recent wave of cyberattacks is further detailed in Section II.)

Specific regulatory areas – federal law

Along with the FTC's application of its general authority to privacy-related harms, the United States also has an extensive array of specific federal privacy and data security laws for the types of citizen and consumer data that are most sensitive and at risk. These laws grant various federal agencies rule making, oversight and enforcement authority, and these agencies often issue policy guidance on both general and specific privacy topics. In particular, Congress has passed robust laws that prescribe specific statutory standards for protecting the following types of information:

  1. financial information;
  2. healthcare information;
  3. information about children;
  4. telephone, internet and other electronic communications and records; and
  5. credit and consumer reports.

We briefly examine each of these categories,68 and the agencies with primary enforcement responsibility for them, below.

Financial information

The GLBA69 addresses financial data privacy and security by establishing standards pursuant to which financial institutions must safeguard and store their customers' 'non-public personal information' (or 'personally identifiable financial information'). In brief, the GLBA requires financial institutions to notify consumers of their policies and practices regarding the disclosure of personal information; to prohibit the disclosure of such data to unaffiliated third parties, unless consumers have the right to opt-out or other exceptions apply; and to establish safeguards to protect the security of personal information. The GLBA and its implementing regulations further require certain financial institutions (i.e., banks) to notify regulators and data subjects after breaches implicating non-public personal financial information, often referred to as NPI.

Various financial regulators, such as the federal banking regulators (e.g., the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) and the SEC have authority to enforce consumer privacy under the GLBA, while the FTC (for non-bank financial institutions) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) (for certain banks and non-bank financial institutions) do as well. (Insurance is regulated at the state level, so GLBA financial privacy in this sector is administered by state insurance commissions.)

The SEC has also increasingly used its broad investigative and enforcement powers over public companies that have suffered cybersecurity incidents. In doing so, the SEC has relied on multiple theories, including that material risks were not appropriately disclosed and reported pursuant to the agency's guidance on how and when to do so and that internal controls for financial reporting relating to information security did not adequately capture and reflect the potential risk posed to the accuracy of financial results. In 2018, the SEC published interpretive guidance to assist publicly traded companies in disclosing their material cybersecurity risks and incidents to investors.70 As noted earlier, the SEC has recently proposed updates to that include prescriptive cybersecurity requirements. The SEC has suggested that all public companies adopt cyber disclosure controls and procedures that enable companies to:

  1. identify cybersecurity risks and incidents;
  2. assess and analyse their impact on a company's business;
  3. evaluate the significance associated with such risks and incidents;
  4. provide for open communications between technical experts and disclosure advisers;
  5. make timely disclosures regarding such risks and incidents; and
  6. adopt internal policies to prevent insider trading while the company is investigating a suspected data breach.
Healthcare information

For healthcare privacy, entities within the HHS administer and enforce the HIPAA,71 as amended by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH).72 Congress enacted HIPAA to create national standards for electronic healthcare transactions, and HHS has promulgated regulations to protect the privacy and security of personal health information. In general, HIPAA and its implementing regulations state that patients generally have to opt in before covered organisations can share the patients' information with other organisations.

HIPAA's healthcare coverage is quite broad. It defines protected health information (PHI) as 'individually identifiable health information . . . transmitted or maintained in electronic media' or in 'any other form or medium'.73 Individually identifiable health information is in turn defined as a subset of health information, including demographic information, that 'is created or received by a health care provider, health plan, employer, or health care clearinghouse'; that 'relates to the past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition of an individual', 'the provision of health care to an individual', or 'the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to an individual'; and that either identifies the individual or provides a reasonable means by which to identify the individual.74 Notably, HIPAA does not apply to 'de-identified' data.

With respect to organisations, HIPAA places obligations on 'covered entities', which include health plans, healthcare clearing houses and healthcare providers that engage in electronic transactions as well as, via HITECH, service providers to covered entities that need access to PHI to perform their services. It also imposes requirements in connection with employee medical insurance.75

Moreover, HIPAA also places obligations on 'business associates,' which are required to enter into agreements, called business associate agreements, to safeguard PHI. A business associate is defined as an entity that performs or assists a covered entity in the performance of a function or activity that involves the use or disclosure of PHI (including, but not limited to, claims processing or administration activities).76 Such agreements require business associates to use and disclose PHI only as permitted or required by the agreement or as required by law and to use appropriate safeguards to prevent the use or disclosure of PHI other than as provided for by the business associate agreement. The agreements also include numerous other provisions regarding the confidentiality, integrity and availability of electronic PHI.

HIPAA and HITECH not only restrict access to and use of PHI, but also impose stringent information security standards. In particular, HHS administers the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule, which imposes significant reporting requirements and provides for civil and criminal penalties for the compromise of PHI maintained by covered entities and their business associates. The HIPAA Security Rule also requires covered entities to maintain appropriate administrative, physical and technical safeguards to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and security of electronic PHI.

Information about children

The COPPA applies to operators of commercial websites and online services that are directed to children under the age of 13, as well as general audience websites and online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. The FTC is generally responsible for enforcing COPPA's requirements, which include, among other things, that these website operators post a privacy policy, provide notice about collection to parents, obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children and other actions.77

Telephone, internet and other electronic communications and records

A number of legal regimes address communications and other electronic privacy and security, and only the briefest discussion of this highly technical area of law is possible here. In short, some of the key statutory schemes are as follows:

  1. the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) protects the privacy and security of the content of certain electronic communications and related records;78
  2. the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) prohibits hacking and other forms of harmful and unauthorised access or trespass to computer systems, and can often be invoked against disloyal insiders or cybercriminals who attempt to steal trade secrets or otherwise misappropriate valuable corporate information contained on corporate computer networks;79
  3. various sections of the Communications Act protect telecommunications information, including what is known as customer proprietary network information, or CPNI;80
  4. the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) governs robocalls and texts;81 and
  5. the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act governs commercial email messages, generally permitting companies to send commercial emails to anyone provided that the recipient has not opted out of receiving such emails from the company, the email identifies the sender and the sender's contact information, and the email has instructions on how to easily and at no cost opt-out of future commercial emails from the company.82

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the primary regulator for communications privacy issues, although it shares jurisdiction with the FTC on certain issues, including notably the TCPA.

Credit and consumer reports

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA),83 as amended by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003,84 imposes requirements on entities that possess or maintain consumer credit reporting information or information generated from consumer credit reports. Consumer reports are 'any written, oral, or other communication of any information by a consumer reporting agency bearing on a consumer's creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer's eligibility' for credit, insurance, employment or other similar purposes.

The CFPB, FTC and federal banking regulators (e.g., the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) share authority for enforcing FCRA, which mandates accurate and relevant data collection to give consumers the ability to access and correct their credit information and limits the use of consumer reports to permissible purposes such as employment, and extension of credit or insurance.85

ii Privacy and data protection legislation and standards – state law

Oversight of privacy is by no means exclusively the province of the federal government. All 50 US states also engage in some form of privacy and data protection regulation, with particular emphasis on data security and breach notifications. Moreover, state attorneys general have become increasingly active with respect to privacy and data protection matters, often drawing on authorities and mandates similar to those of the FTC. Of particular note, as the largest of the US states, the home to Silicon Valley, and a frequent regulatory innovator, California continues to be a bellwether for US privacy and data protection legislation, with businesses across the United States often applying its regulatory approaches, whether or not they are jurisdictionally required to do so.86 (To this end, Section II discusses the highly significant California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which went into effect on 1 January 2020, and amendments to the law enacted California Privacy Rights Act, which go into effect on 1 January 2023.)

Cybersecurity and data breaches – state law

The United States was unquestionably a world leader in establishing information security and data breach notification mandates, and the states played an integral, if not the integral, role. Although the federal government did not – and still has not – put in place a general national standard, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other US jurisdictions have imposed their own affirmative data breach notification requirements on private entities that collect or process personal data. California, as is so often the case, was the first: in 2003 the California legislature required companies to notify individuals whose personal information was compromised or improperly acquired. Other states soon followed, and companies who have had nationwide data breaches must now research a number of different laws – which are largely similar, but differ in subtle and important ways – to determine their notification obligations.

In addition to the data breach notification laws, states have also imposed affirmative administrative, technical and physical safeguards to protect the security of sensitive personal information.87 For example, Massachusetts regulations require regulated entities to have a comprehensive, written information security programme and vendor security controls.88 Likewise, as discussed in Section II, the California Consumer Privacy Act contains security requirements, and a preliminary set of general safeguards went into effect in 2020 in New York, to say nothing of the sector-specific Cybersecurity Regulation issued by New York's DFS. In short, absent pre-emptive federal legislation, we should expect to see states continuing to pass new legislation in this area, creating an increasingly complicated patchwork quilt of state laws for companies to navigate.

General consumer privacy enforcement – 'Little FTCA' analogues

Similar to the FTC, state attorneys general possess the power to bring enforcement actions based on unfair or deceptive trade practices. The source of this power is typically a 'Little FTC Act', which generally prohibits 'unfair or deceptive acts and practices' and authorises the state attorney general to enforce the law. In particular, the little FTCAs in 43 states and the District of Columbia include a broad prohibition against deception that is enforceable by both consumers (i.e., a private right of action) and a state agency. Moreover, in 39 states and the District of Columbia, these statutes include prohibitions against unfair or unconscionable acts, enforceable by consumers and a state agency.

Thus, if one of the sector-specific federal or state laws does not cover a particular category of data or information practice, businesses may still find themselves subject to regulation and enforcement. In fact, recent privacy events have seen increased cooperation and coordination in enforcement among state attorneys general, whereby multiple states will jointly pursue actions against companies that experience data breaches or other privacy allegations. Coordinated actions among state attorneys general often exact greater penalties from companies than would typically be obtained by a single enforcement authority. In recent years, attorneys general in states such as California, Connecticut and Maryland have formally created units charged with the oversight of privacy, and New York has created a unit to oversee the internet and technology.

California is the only state to date that has a privacy-focused agency, the California Privacy Protection Agency. The agency has administrative enforcement powers, rulemaking authority, and is also charged with educating Californians about their privacy rights and providing technical assistance and advise to the California legislature.89

Specific regulatory areas – state laws

While, as described above, the federal government has enacted a number of privacy and data protection laws that target particular industries, activities and information types, the diversity of data laws is even greater at the state level. In the areas of online privacy and data security alone, state legislatures have passed laws covering a broad array of privacy-related issues, such as biometric information,90 cyberstalking,91 data disposal,92 privacy policies, employer access to employee social media accounts,93 unsolicited commercial communications94 and electronic solicitation of children,95 to name just a few. State attorneys general also frequently issue policy guidance on specific privacy topics. For instance, like the FTC, California has also issued best-practice recommendations for mobile apps and platforms.

While a detailed discussion of all of the state laws and regulations is beyond the scope of this chapter, discussion of a couple of exemplary categories should illustrate their importance.

First, consider cybersecurity standards. New York's DFS is a key regulator here, recently promulgating safeguards that require banks, insurance companies and other financial service institutions it regulates to create and maintain a cybersecurity programme designed to protect consumers and New York's financial industry.96 All financial institutions regulated by DFS – which is a wide range of US financial institutions with a presence in many states – are required to create a cybersecurity programme that, among other things, is approved by the board or a senior corporate official, appoint a chief information security officer, limit access to non-public data, and implement guidelines to notify state regulators of cybersecurity or data security incidents within 72 hours. As noted earlier in this chapter, the New York DFS filed several enforcement actions in 2022 and is proposing to strengthen cybersecurity requirements for businesses subject to its jurisdiction.

Moreover, a number of states are promulgating similar or even broader cybersecurity requirements. For instance, New York has built upon the DFS standards by enacting the Stop Hacks and Improve Electronic Data Security Act (SHIELD Act) on 25 July 2019, which, among other things, requires entities that handle private information to implement a data security programme with 'reasonable' administrative, technical and physical safeguards. The Act's reasonable security requirement went into effect on 21 March 2020. The law is notable for detailing what constitutes reasonable security, providing specific examples of reasonable safeguards. The SHIELD Act also makes clear that entities in compliance with data security frameworks under certain federal or state laws (such as GLBA and HIPAA) are in compliance with the SHIELD Act.

Second, consider privacy policies. As is typical, California plays an outsized role here, with its California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA) almost serving – as many of its laws do – as a de facto national standard and thus affecting businesses operating throughout the United States.97 In short, CalOPPA requires operators to post a conspicuous privacy policy online that identifies the categories of personally identifiable information that the operator collects about individual consumers. The privacy policy must also detail how the operator responds to a web browser 'do not track' signal. California law also prohibits websites directed to minors from advertising products based on information specific to that minor, and the law further requires the website operator to permit a minor to request removal of content or information posted on the operator's site or service by the minor, with certain exceptions.98

While California's privacy policy laws are likely the most prominent, they do not stand alone. For instance, Connecticut law requires any person who collects social security numbers in the course of business to create a publicly displayed privacy protection policy that protects the confidentiality of the sensitive number. Nebraska and Pennsylvania have laws that prohibit the use of false and misleading statements in website privacy policies.99 And there are many other state laws concerning privacy policies, making this an excellent example of the many and diverse regulations that may be relevant to businesses operating across multiple US states.

iii Private litigation

Beyond federal and state regulation and legislation, the highly motivated and aggressive US private plaintiffs' bar adds another element to the complex system of privacy governance in the United States.

Many US laws authorise private plaintiffs to enforce privacy standards, and the possibility of substantial contingency or attorneys' fees highly incentivise plaintiffs' counsel to develop strategies to use these standards to vindicate commercial privacy rights through consumer class action litigation. A company may thus face a wave of lawsuits after being accused in the media of misusing consumer data, being victimised by a hacker or suffering a data breach.

A full discussion of the many potential causes of action granted by US law is beyond the scope of this chapter, but a few examples will suffice to show the range of possible lawsuits. For example, plaintiffs often sue under state 'unfair and deceptive acts and practices' standards, and state law also allows plaintiffs to bring common law tort claims under general misappropriation or negligence theories. Moreover, as mentioned at the outset, US courts have long recognised privacy torts, with the legal scholar William Prosser building on the famed work of Brandeis and Warren to create a taxonomy of four privacy torts in his 1960 article, 'Privacy'100 – a taxonomy that was later codified in the American Law Institute's famous and influential Restatement (Second) of Torts.101 Thus, aggrieved parties can generally bring a civil suit for invasion of privacy (or intrusion upon seclusion), public disclosure of private facts, being cast in a 'false light', and appropriation or infringement of the right of publicity or personal likeness. Importantly, these rights protect not only the potential abuse of information, but generally govern its collection and use. However, not all states recognise all the common law torts. For example, New York does not recognise a legal claim for publication of private facts.

iv Industry self-regulation: company policies and practices

To address concerns about privacy practices in various industries, industry stakeholders have worked with the government, academics and privacy advocates to build a number of co-regulatory initiatives that adopt domain-specific, robust privacy protections that are enforceable by the FTC under Section 5 and by state attorneys general pursuant to their concurrent authority. These cooperatively developed accountability programmes establish expected practices for the use of consumer data within their sectors, which is then subject to enforcement by both governmental and non-governmental authorities. While there are obviously limits to industry self-regulation, these initiatives have led to such salutary developments as the Digital Advertising Alliance's 'About Advertising' icon and a policy on the opt-out for cookies set forth by the Network Advertising Initiative.102

Companies that assert their compliance with, or membership in, these self-regulatory initiatives must comply with these voluntary standards or risk being deemed to have engaged in a deceptive practice. It should be noted that the same is true for companies that publish privacy policies – a company's failure to comply with its own privacy policy is, quintessentially, a deceptive practice. To this end, as noted above, California law requires publication or provision of a privacy policy in certain instances, and numerous other state and federal laws do as well, including, inter alia, the GLBA (financial data) and HIPAA (health data).103 In addition, voluntary membership or certification in various self-regulatory initiatives also requires posting of privacy policies, which then become enforceable by the FTC, state attorneys general and private plaintiffs claiming deception or detrimental reliance on those policies.

Public and private enforcement

As discussed in greater detail above in Sections II and III, the United States does not have a central de jure privacy regulator; the US system for privacy and cybersecurity litigation and enforcement is carried out by an army of disciplinarians. The FTC and state attorneys general are perhaps the most prominent general-purpose enforcers to protect against abuses of personal information and unfair data practices, although the new CPPA will likely become a force to be reckoned with soon.

Moreover, compliance with the FTC's guidelines and mandates on privacy issues is not necessarily coterminous with the extent of an entity's privacy obligations under federal law – a number of other agencies, bureaus and commissions are endowed with substantive privacy enforcement authority. Specifically, agencies like the FCC, CFPB, SEC, HHS/OCR play a strong role in investigating and enforcing under their respective statutory authorities over personal data and cybersecurity.

Of course, in the United States, private litigation may be the ultimate deterrent. The plaintiff's bar increasingly exerts its influence, imposing considerable privacy discipline on the conduct of corporations doing business with consumers. Class action lawsuits alleging violations of data security obligations, or biometric and telephone consumer protection laws, among many other theories, have produced settlements in the amount of hundreds of millions of dollars.