Info Law Group

Online Banking and "Reasonable Security" Under the Law: Breaking New Ground?

With the report of another data security-related lawsuit involving online banking (another 2009 lawsuit referenced here involved an alleged loss of over $500,000), and a recent victory for a plaintiff on a summary judgment motion in a similar online banking data security breach case, the question arises whether online banking breaches will yield some substantive case law on the issue of “reasonable” security procedures as a matter of law. Ironically, this question may be answered by reference to a 20 year old model code (UCC 4A) originally drafted to address technological advances from that era. This post explores two complaints recently filed against banks for online banking  (Patco Construction Co. v. People’s United Bank ("PATCO”) and JM Test Systems, Inc. v. Capital One Bank ("JMT")) and a court’s ruling on a motion for summary judgment in similar lawsuit (Shames-Yeakel v. Citizens Bank Memo and Memo Order on Motion for Summary Judgment – “Shames-Yeakel” case).  In short, since the Shames-Yeakel case proceeded past the "damages" pleading phase, it (and possibly these other online breach suits) reveals how some courts view security "standards" and approach the question of whether a company has achieved "reasonable security."  I also believe they demonstrate the difficulty defendants face if they have to defend their security measures in a litigation context after a security breach.

Plaintiffs’ Allegations

In general, these matters involve a fairly consistent general set of allegations: 

  • the bank allowed a small business to utilize online banking, including ACH transfers;
  • nefarious third parties somehow gained access to the plaintiffs’ online banking account (e.g. login credentials such as username, password, “secret question”, etc.), which allowed them to use the online banking system to transfer (a.k.a. steal) funds out of the plaintiffs' bank account;
  • the bank failed to provide notice to the plaintiffs of unusual or suspicious activity; and
  • the bank’s security measures did not prevent the fraudulent transfers and were not commercially reasonable.

In addition, the following facts were alleged in one or more of the three cases:

  • the bank failed to block a transfer request from an IP address that was previously unused by the plaintiff (e.g. an IP address was different than typically used by the plaintiff);
  • the bank did not utilize multifactor-factor authentication (e.g. “token-based” authentication or fax confirmation);
  • the allowable daily transfer limit vastly exceeded the plaintiffs’ average/maximum daily transfers (e.g. in PATCO, the daily maximum limit was $750k, but the most PATCO ever needed to transfer was $36.6k);
  • the funds were transferred to individual accounts to which the plaintiffs had never transferred funds before; and
  • despite having been informed of unauthorized transactions by the plaintiff, the bank did not close the account in order to prevent more fraudulent transactions (JMT case only).

Alleged Legal Theories

Based on these facts the plaintiffs asserted various causes of action against the banks relating to security practices. In both PATCO and JMT, the plaintiffs referenced the bank’s failure to comply with section 4A-202 (ISSUE AND ACCEPTANCE OF PAYMENT ORDER) of the Uniform Commercial Code (in PATCO the plaintiffs cited MRSA 4-1202 and in JMT they cited RS 10:4A-202). Under 4A-202, as long as the bank and its customer have agreed that the customer will be verified pursuant to a “security procedure”, a payment order received from the customer will be considered an effective order by the customer, whether it was actually authorized by the customer, but only if the security procedure was “commercially reasonable” and followed by the bank.   In PATCO, for example, the plaintiffs alleged that 4A-202 had been violated for the following reasons:

  • failure to offer/use multi-factor authentication to authenticate the plaintiffs’ identity for online transactions;
  • use of an unreasonably low trigger for “challenge question” authentication;
  • failure to provide and IP address block that would block orders originating from unapproved IP addresses;
  • failure to detect fraud because the amounts of the payments were the largest ever made under the account, were sent to accounts to which funds had never been transferred, originated from an IP address that had never previously been used and occurred on days that the plaintiff normally did not may payments;
  • failure to offer a dual control option requiring two people to log on in order to complete a payment transaction;
  • allowing a transfer limit that exceeded the needs of the plaintiff;
  • failure to manually review ACH payment batches prior to submission for payment; and
  • failure to provide email alerts concerning unusual transactions.

In addition to a UCC violation, all of the cases included allegations of negligent security and breach of contract. In Shames-Yeakel, the plaintiffs alleged that the bank’s failure to implement multi-factor authentication did not comply with a document put out by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) entitled “Authentication in an Internet Banking Environment” (the FFIEC Report), and therefore presented questions of fact as to negligence. The JMT plaintiff, in support of its negligence claim, alleged a failure to meet the security standards of “similarly situated” national banks,  a failure to implement security procedures that were “commercially reasonable,” and a failure of the bank to comply with its own existing security procedures.

The Judgment on the Shames-Yeakel Motion for Summary Judgment

While the PATCO and JMT complaints have not yet been tested on motion, the Shames-Yeakel plaintiffs have survived a summary judgment motion. In addition to other statutory claims that were particular to the fact pattern at hand, and relevant to this blogpost, the plaintiffs alleged that the bank was negligent in failing to protect the plaintiffs’ online account, and in particular breached its duty to sufficiently secure its online banking system. 

As such, the threshold question the court addressed was whether a duty to “sufficiently secure” its online banking existed for the Bank.   On that point, the court extrapolated a duty to secure based on a bank’s general duty to refrain from disclosing its customer’s information:

A number of courts have recognized that fiduciary institutions have a common law duty to protect their members’ or customers’ confidential information against identity theft. Although this court could not find an Indiana case addressing the matter, Indiana courts have held that a bank “has a duty not to disclose information concerning one of its customers unless it is to someone who has a legitimate public interest.” If this duty not to disclose customer information is to have any weight in the age of online banking, then banks must certainly employ sufficient security measures to protect their customers’ online accounts.

(citations omitted; emphasis added). Apparently, according to the court, the bank-defendant did not dispute the existence of a duty to protect the plaintiffs’ account from fraudulent access. However the bank did contest the plaintiffs’ allegations that the bank breached its duty and that the breach caused harm to the plaintiffs.

On that issue, the court focused on the FFIEC Report. According to the court, the FFIEC  Report indicated that single-factor identification was “inadequate” for securing online transactions of financial institutions. Moreover, a vice president of the bank admitted that the bank did not implement additional security measures beyond single factor identification until after the breach at issue. Thus, the court held that a reasonable finder of fact could potentially conclude that the bank breached its duty. Moreover, since the bank had not reimbursed the plaintiffs for their economic loss, the court ruled that a jury could find that the bank’s failure to secure caused such economic loss (as well as mental and emotional anguish).

Analysis

The Shames-Yeakel case (as well as potentially the PATCO and JMT down the line) is very interesting from a data security breach liability perspective. First, most data breach cases (typically involving suits by consumers or banks issuing credit cards) are dismissed early on for lack of damages or based on the economic loss doctrine. With online banking the damage component is clear (e.g. lost money) and since the main loss of money arguably constitutes “direct damages” (rather than purely economic damages), the economic loss doctrine may not bar an action. As such the court must rule on substantive issues such as the existence a duty to provide “reasonable security” and whether that duty was breached and caused damages. This is what happened in Shames-Yeakel.

The approach taken by Shames-Yeakel was also very interesting. In essence, the Court took a non-binding, completely voluntary “guidance” document and allowed it to serve as the standard of care for “reasonable security” in this context. This FFIEC Report was not an official “standard” and did not reflect any statutory requirements (for purposes of establishing a negligence per se theory). I am sure that the FFIEC and other bodies have put out a lot of papers (formal and informal) on various security and privacy issues, and if other courts are willing to accept these guidance documents as establishing standards (or better stated creating a question of fact for juries) then defendants of data breach cases may  face some significant liability in the future. While this particular FFIEC Report may be the appropriate benchmark in this case, I would have liked to see the court explain its rationale in more detail for converting this guidance document into the standard of care (e.g. Why this particular document? What other kinds of documents reports may establish the standard? If it was a report from a non-governmental body would it have the same weight? Must the standard reflect some sort of consensus? What opposing guidance or opinions exist, how much weight are they given in determining or discarding a particular alleged standard?, etc.)

Beyond the court’s decision to arguably elevate the importance of the FFIEC Report, it is not even clear that the report stands for the very broad proposition that single-factor authentication for online banking is inadequate. The following excerpt from the FFIEC Report summarizes the authors' views on the inadequacy of single-factor identification:

The agencies consider single-factor authentication, as the only control mechanism, to be inadequate for high-risk transactions involving access to customer information or the movement of funds to other parties. Financial institutions offering Internet-based products and services to their customers should use effective methods to authenticate the identity of customers using those products and services. The authentication techniques employed by the financial institution should be appropriate to the risks associated with those products and services. Account fraud and identity theft are frequently the result of single-factor (e.g., ID/password) authentication exploitation. Where risk assessments indicate that the use of single-factor authentication is inadequate, financial institutions should implement multifactor authentication, layered security, or other controls reasonably calculated to mitigate those risks.

Note that the FFIC Report indicates that single-factor authentication may be inadequate if it is the only control mechanism or where a risk assessment indicates that the use of single-factor authentication is inadequate. The FFEIC Report then lists layered security or multi-factor authentication as potentially compensating for single-factor authentication (while I will let my security friends weigh in on this issue, as well as identify other potential compensating controls). In short, the FFEIC Report on its face seems to indicate that it is possible to utilize single-factor authentication with other controls such that risk is adequately mitigated. In contrast, the court in Shames-Yeakel stated the following: 

In [the FFEIC Report] the Council described single-factor identification (username/password) as “inadequate” to secure the online transactions of financial institutions. 

Despite overstating the conclusion of the FFIEC report, however, overall the court’s decision to deny the motion for summary judgment may be okay. It is likely that both parties have contradictory expert testimony on the issue of reasonable security. Second, some testimony existed from the bank's vice president hat appears to establish that only single-factor authentication was used by the bank (although this seems contradicted by the banks’ expert testimony that the bank employed reasonable security measures). Moreover, in general, whether single-factor authentication plus additional security adequately reduced the risk appears to be a factual question. I think the court could have come out with the same ruling without overstating the conclusions of the FFIEC report simply by accurately citing the FFIEC report, the vice president’s testimony, and indicating that both sides had contradictory opinions on the overall issue of whether the bank’s security was reasonable. 

Conclusion

The Shames-Yeakel ruling highlights potential significant difficulties for defendants if plaintiffs are able to proceed past the motion to dismiss phase in a data breach lawsuit. Despite the court’s inaccurate description of the FFIEC Report, when the question of whether security controls were adequate to reduce risk to an appropriate level is posed, it will be difficult for defendants to win on summary judgment. Like many other types of lawsuits, it will come down to a “battle of the experts”, and for these cases a “battle of the standards” (e.g. which standards should the defendant have complied with and did they comply with them). As such, for data breach defendants the pleadings phase will be where the street brawl will take place. Defendants will want to (and should) aggressively attack the early “questions of law” (e.g. does a duty exist at all, did the plaintiff suffer legally cognizable harm). If plaintiffs can get past this phase, it seems that it will be a challenge for defendants to win a motion for summary judgment and avoid the prospect of a jury trial (I think, for many data breaches, causation will be the most likely candidate for a defendant victory on summary judgment).

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Bruce - January 29, 2010 10:44 PM

As a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) I found this very interesting, especially the comments regarding single-factor authentication. I reviewed the FFIEC recommendations as part of my previous job as Information Security Architect for one of the top fifty banks in the country. The recommendations are couched in permissive language, but the reality is that a proper risk assessment will find single-factor controls insufficient. Also, the other compensating controls that might buttress single-factor authentication would generally include things like IP address block monitoring or anomalous behavior recognition, which were patently absent from the cases cited.
I know that in several cases of unauthorized ACH transfers from compromised customer accounts my employer contended that the customer was at fault for allowing their credentials to be stolen. I am somewhat surprised that there have not yet been many reported actions against system suppliers or antivirus vendors for delivering insecure systems to the small/midsize business market, but expect that will change soon. The Radiant Systems lawsuit (http://www.csoonline.com/article/509514/Restaurants_Sue_Vendors_After_Point_of_Sale_Hack) is likely to be a trendsetter. The real point is that the technological sophistication of attackers far outstrips that of most bank customers, so commercially reasonable expectations regarding security of the customer systems have to be calibrated appropriately. Blaming the victims will eventually be an ineffective strategy for the banks, and that along with the cases reported here will ultimately reshape the approach to secure online banking. Unfortunately in the meantime many more losses will be incurred needlessly.

Robert - January 4, 2011 7:56 PM

Liability absolutely HAS to fall on the banks. From a social perspective, any other choice is unthinkable.

Banks liable: Experts with control over money flow are highly motivated to use their mastery to control fraud. Adam Smith's invisible hand moves the banks to create stable, solid anti-fraud systems.

Consumers liable: Amateur, ill-trained small business and consumers are hopelessly outclassed by the skilled fraudsters. Theft is rampant, and the banks have no urgent need to care, and simply run more commercials stating how safe they are. Faith in the banking system is lost and people put their money in other things.

Once again, World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer virtual world game, helps us model the real world. Players accumulate virtual currency (gold) as they play. Hackers steal their accounts, strip them of gold and resell the gold to other players for real money. It's a soft crime; Interpol won't kick down your door for it.

The publisher could tell the players tough patooties, making it "consumer liable". But players, forced to start over, would likely choose a competing game. So they voluntarily embrace a "bank liable" model. Their liability is the customer service and engineering time to unwind the damage.

This had exactly the effects I predict - the available protections on WoW game accounts exceeds that available to corporate customers of banks.

Move the accountability to those capable of fixing the problem. And watch it get fixed overnight.

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