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SEC Issues Guidance Concerning Cyber Security Incident Disclosure

Posted in Breach Notice, Heartland

(co-authored by Nicole Friess) Publicly traded businesses now have yet another set of guidelines to follow regarding security risks and incidents. On October 13, 2011 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Division of Corporation Finance released a guidance document that assists registrants in assessing what disclosures should be made in the face of cyber security risks and incidents. The guidance provides an overview of disclosure obligations under current securities laws – some of which, according to the guidance, may require a disclosure of cyber security risks and incidents in financial statements.

Drawing from certain SEC forms and regulations, the guidance emphasizes that registrants should disclose the risk of cyber incidents “if these issues are among the most significant factors that make an investment in the company speculative or risky.” Registrants are expected to evaluate security risks, and if a registrant determines that disclosure is required, the registrant is expected to “describe the nature of the material risks and specify how each risk affects the registrant,” avoiding generic disclosures.

The SEC indicated that in analyzing cyber security risks and whether those risk should be reported, registrants should take the following into account:

  • prior cyber incidents and the severity and frequency of those incidents;
  • the probability of cyber incidents occurring and the quantitative and qualitative magnitude of those risks, including the potential costs and other consequences resulting from misappropriation of assets or sensitive information, corruption of data or operational disruption; and
  • the adequacy of preventative actions taken to reduce cyber security risks in the context of the industry in which they operate and risks to that security, including threatened attacks of which they are aware.

Additionally, the guidance advises registrants to address risks and incidents in their MD&A “if the costs or other consequences associated with one or more known incidents or the risk of potential incidents represent a material event, trend, or uncertainty that is reasonably likely to have a material effect on the registrant’s results of operations, liquidity, or financial condition or would cause reported financial information not to be necessarily indicative of future operating results or financial condition.” Other situations requiring disclosure include if one or more incidents has materially affected a registrant’s “products, services, relationships with customers or suppliers, or competitive conditions” and if an incident is involved in a material pending legal proceeding to which a registrant or any of its subsidiaries is a party.  Registrants are also expected to disclose certain security incidents on financial statements, as well as the effectiveness of disclosure controls and procedures on filings with the SEC.

While cyber security risk has always been a potential financial disclosure issue, and something that directors and officers need to take into account, the SEC guidance really highlights the issue and brings it to the fore. Even so, materiality is still going to a big issue, and not every breach will need to be reported as many/most will not likely involve the potential for a material impact to a company. 

What the guidance document does stress, however, is process and risk assessment.  One read of this guidance is that companies internally are going to have to more carefully forecast and estimate the impact of cyber incidents and the consequences of failing to implement adequate security.  This analysis will go well beyond privacy-related security issues where most companies have focused (due to various privacy laws and regulator activity), and implicate key operational issues impacted by security breaches.  It will be interesting to see how this affects the internal corporate dynamics between CIOs and their business counter-parts.  This guidance may provide additional leverage for security risk managers to obtain bigger budgets, new technology and more personnel. 

This guidance may impact the traditional breach notification process as well.  Companies may now need to analyze not only whether notice to impacted individuals is necessary, but also whether shareholders should be getting a disclosure in financials statements.  This new guidance also raises the specter of directors and officers lawsuits.  We saw a D&O suit in the Heartland data breach that went nowhere, does this guidance provide more legs to plaintiffs?  Only time will tell.