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A Novel Data Security Law Proposed in Colorado

Posted in Regulations

There has been a lot of buzz around various privacy and security bills presented on the Federal level, including the reintroduction of the BEST PRACTICES ACT and a new privacy bill put out by Congresswoman Speier that brings "do-not-track" into the fray (not to mention the previously introduced Boucher Bill, which is now missing its named sponsor). Yet, for the most part, these types of bills have languished on the Federal level, while interesting new approaches race ahead from State legislatures (see for example, SB1386, Minnesota’s Plastic Card Protection Act, Massachusetts’ 201 CMR 17:00, et. seq., Nevada’s Security of Personal Information Law, and Washington state’s PCI Law) Over the past couple years, many predicted that new state laws would follow the lead of states like Nevada and Massachusetts, and some anticipated we could see a situation where 50 different privacy/security laws across the country. Now it looks like we are beginning to see some renewed activity on the state level. In Hawaii we have a proposed bill that would require breached entities to provide credit monitoring and call center services to impacted individuals. In my home state, Colorado, a legislator (Dan Pabon) has proposed a novel bill that takes a new approach to incentivizing companies to implement good security. In this post, we take a look at the highlights of the Colorado bill.

UPDATE — 022810:  Apparently there has been a committee vote on the Colorado bill that was split 5-5 along party lines.  As such, this bill will not move forward in this session.

Colorado HB 11-1225 – An Information Security Carrot

Regulation is achieved via the “carrot” or the “stick” (and sometimes both). This is true in the information security context as well. For example, to incentivize encryption of personal information, breach notice laws use a stick: those that fail to encrypt may have to provide notice to affected individuals in the event of a security breach. In the credit card breach context, a Washington state law provides banks with a stick (e.g. the right to seek fraud and reissuance expenses from breached merchants), but also provides those merchants with a shield to block that stick (e.g. validation of PCI compliance blocks a bank’s ability to recover). In HB 11-1225, Colorado state legislator, Dan Pabon, apparently wants to give the carrot a chance. In the process, I am told that part of the goal is to make Colorado the “Delaware” of data storage. Here is how it works.

Immunity from Liability. Under HB 11-1225, if certain conditions are met (discussed below) a person or entity operating in Colorado that owns, licenses or maintains computerized data that includes “personal information” shall not be liable for civil damages resulting from a breach of data security due to its acts or omissions that are in good faith, and not grossly negligent or willful and wonton.  So essentially, this would provide immunity from negligence claims. In order to receive this protection, two conditions must be satisfied: (1) the breach must have been caused by an unauthorized third party, or an employee or agent acting outside the scope of his employment; and (2) the person or entity must have been certified by a “qualified information technology auditor or assessor” as having used “best practices of data security and meeting information technology standards” established by an authorized state entity.

Rebuttable Presumption of Non-Negligence. Even if a breached organization has not been certified as compliant with best practices/information technology standards, it can achieve certain protections under the bill. In court, an organization can establish a rebuttable presumption that it was not negligent if it can produce evidence that the organization implemented best practices and was compliant with technology security standards established pursuant to the bill.

Consumers’ Right to Petition Court for Subpoena. The bill provides persons whose personal information was compromised or who are victims of a computer crime, to seek a petition from a court impelling the breached organization or any third party to produce “any” information concerning the unauthorized access to personal information or the computer crime. This information may be obtained in order to facilitate the detection, apprehension and prosecution of the computer crime or breach.

Key Definitions. “Personal information” as defined under the bill is broader than definitions in most breach notice laws. One defined category of personal information is information that can be used, alone or in conjunction with any other information, to obtain cash, credit, property, services, or any other thing of value, or to make a financial payment, including personal identification number, credit card number, banking card number, checking account number, etc. Personal information is also defined as information that can be used, alone or in conjunction with other information, to identify a specific individual, including name, date of birth, social security number, government ID, passport number, etc.

In order to be a “qualified information technology auditor or assessor” one must be certified by a nationally recognized organization or association as having expertise in data security, and cannot have any convictions involving moral turpitude offenses. The bill indicates that the CIO of the State of Colorado is required to establish an entity to maintain a list of the nationally recognized IT associations that may certify a person’s qualifications in data security systems for purposes of the bill.

Establishing Best Practices and Information Technology Security Standards. One of the key challenges for implementing this HB 11-1225 (should it become law in its current form) is going to be the establishment of best practices and IT security standards. On this issue the bill requires the CIO of the State of Colorado to create an “entity” to establish these best practices and standards for commercial entities and persons that own, license or maintain computerized data that includes personal information. The bill does not provide additional guidance as to how those best practices shall be determined, or whether there will be one set of best practices that will apply to all entities (regardless of size, complexity or resources).

Analysis and Observations

Novel approaches to information security and privacy legislation are, of course, welcomed. The questions remain, however. Will it work? Will it pass? Unclear at this point. Below are a few observations pertaining to these questions.

  • Does a duty exist to safeguard personal information under common law negligence principles? Surprisingly, at this point we have very little case law directly on point that delves into this issue. However, a recent Illinois appellate court recently ruled that a common law duty to safeguard personal information did not exist. In contrast, we are aware of cases that did find a duty to secure personal information, but both were in the banking context and were arguably based mainly on the expectations that arise in that context (e.g. banking customers are specifically providing their money to banks for safeguarding, among other reasons). If indeed, no case law establishing such a duty exists in Colorado, the question becomes whether the existence of a law providing immunity for negligence implies that the duty exists. Worse (from the company point of view), it is possible that the best practices established under the bill could end up establishing a standard of care, in and of themselves (where one may arguably not exist).
  • Even if such a duty does exist, do the “good faith” and “gross negligence “exceptions” effectively eat the immunity? In the wake of a data breach where a plaintiff’s attorney has filed a lawsuit, you can bet that any and all potential theories of liability will be alleged. That of course may include allegations of gross negligence and “bad faith.” One of the benefits of HB 11-1225, assuming only a negligence claim is alleged, would be the ability of defendants to have lawsuits dismissed early, perhaps in a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment phase. However, if gross negligence, bad faith or other non-negligence claims are alleged, the plaintiff may have a better chance to get past early motions to dismiss. If that is the case, plaintiffs will still have litigation leverage (regardless of whether they have a truly winning case).  In fact, we are aware of one case in Federal court in Michigan that allowed a case to go to trial based on the issue of "good faith" behavior in the context of security. These “exceptions,” therefore, could undermine the effectiveness of the immunity granted in HB 11-1225. Of course, much more research is necessary to look into these issues.
  • Is the jurisdictional scope of the immunity too narrow? At this stage in the game a large percentage of companies, big and small, conduct business with residents of more than one state (and in many cases all 50 states), and even with people residing outside of the United States. While HB 11-1225 may provide immunity from negligence claims for cases contained in Colorado, it may not help with lawsuits, for example, filed in other jurisdictions or Federal court where Colorado law is not the choice of law. So, if the goal of the law is to become the "Delaware of data storage", it may not be effective to shield companies that deal with personal information from non-Colorado states.  That all said,  there may be jurisdictional arguments that would preclude plaintiffs residing in other states from pursuing a company storing data in Colorado (although making and prevailing in such arguments in court can be an expensive process in and of itself). In addition, a choice of law provision in contracts with out-of-state counter parties might also do the trick to keep the immunity intact.
  • Can the “entity” established by the State actually establish best practices that can work universally and result in good security? Legislating security controls is not an easy task. Two general approaches are used typically. One approach does not require specific controls, but rather mandates “reasonable” “adequate” “comprehensive” or “appropriate” security. The other method is more prescriptive in its approach, and seeks to require specific controls that certain entities must implement (e.g. Massachusett’s and Nevada’s personal information security laws). The risk of a prescriptive approach is the “check list” mentality whereby organizations simply address the specific requirements and don’t actually worry about truly securing themselves (this is a criticism of PCI, the ultimate prescriptive standard). However, even those taking a prescriptive approach may reference various risk factors that relate to the sensitivity of the data and the size, complexity and resources of the company trying to comply. The challenge for the entity developing these best practices is to provide enough clarity/certainty so companies have confidence that they are truly in the safe harbor, and yet to provide enough flexibility to allow companies of all shapes and sizes to get into the safe harbor in a relatively cost-efficient and realistic fashion. The failure to solve this problem could undermine the efficacy of the legislation if it is perceived to be unfair or discriminatory to small and medium-sized businesses who may have neither the expertise nor resources to implement a highly prescriptive set of controls.
     
  • A Shift of Liability to the Auditors? On the one hand, this bill may serve as a business bonanza for IT security auditors who are called into validate compliance with the best practices laid out by the act. On the other hand, a mistake in validating the compliance of a company that suffers a breach could potentially lead to a lawsuit against not only the breached company, but the auditor as well. While a third party affected individual may have difficulty holding an IT security auditor liable without a contract, precedent may exist by analogy to accountants. Moreover, there is at least one known case (Merrick Bank v. Savvis) where an IT assessor (in this case a payment card security assessor) was sued by a party that allegedly relied on its compliance findings. So, from a “passability” point of view, does the IT security assessment community get on board or do they demand some of their own immunity in exchange for supporting this bill?

Conclusion

Overall, Representative Pabon’s bill represents a very interesting approach to data security regulation, and we applaud his efforts and creativity. There may be some hurdles to overcome to see this passed, and a vigorous debate on its mechanics is necessary. We will keep you up to date on its progress.