On August 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to hold companies accountable for their data security practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act (15 U.S.C. § 45(a)), which declares unlawful “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” The unanimous ruling found that “deficient cybersecurity,” practices, which “fail to protect consumer data against hackers,” may be found to be “unfair” practices under the Act, subject to FTC enforcement. The FTC had sued Wyndham for allegedly deficient cybersecurity practices that enabled hackers to obtain payment card information from over 619,000 consumers.
In affirming that the FTC has authority under Section 5 to pursue claims of inadequate data security, the Third Circuit explained that a company’s inadequate data security in the face of foreseeable intrusions falls within the plain meaning of “unfair.” The Third Circuit assured Wyndham that this authority does not enable the agency to dictate the type of locks on hotel room doors or the placement of guards on corporate premises. Nor does it have the authority to sue for every perceived deficiency, just as it would not have the authority to sue supermarkets simply for failing to consistently “sweep up banana peels.” However, the court pointed out that it matters how – and how many – consumers are affected by a company’s practice: “were Wyndham a supermarket, leaving so many banana peels all over the place that 619,000 customers fall hardly suggests it should be immune from liability under § 45(a).”
Wyndham had also argued that it lacked fair notice that the FTC had the authority to assess data security practices under Section 5, but the Third Circuit disagreed, pointing out that the FTC has offered specific public guidance on data security over the years, and has filed multiple complaints and consent decrees “raising unfairness claims based on inadequate corporate cybersecurity” that put companies on notice of its enforcement authority in this space.
The Third Circuit provided some guidance of its own on how can companies avoid FTC enforcement actions alleging unfairness in data security practices, stating that “the relevant inquiry here is a cost-benefit analysis . . . that considers a number of relevant factors, including the probability and expected size of reasonably unavoidable harms to consumers given a certain level of cybersecurity and the costs to consumers that would arise from investment in stronger cybersecurity.” The more sensitive consumer data a company collects, the more it must invest in sound data security safeguards.
As a result, companies need to review their data security practices against both the standard enacted by Congress specifically to govern data security in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the much more general “unfairness” standard found in the FTC Act as well as other federal and state laws.