On November 21, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) had a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to protect sensitive employee information against an unreasonable risk of harm when that information is stored on an internet-accessible computer system. Dittman v. UPMC, No. 43 WAP 2017 (Pa. Nov. 21, 2018). In doing so, the Court made clear that the criminal acts of third parties who may breach a computer system do not alleviate the legal duty on a business to protect such information. The Court further held that the economic loss doctrine (a doctrine that precludes tort cases where the loss is purely monetary) did not apply in this case because the legal duty to protect sensitive employee information exists independently from any contractual obligations between the parties.
The unprecedented cyberattack on October 21, 2016, which crippled many of the Internet’s most widely trafficked sites, should be a wakeup call for businesses about the potential for hackers to weaponize common Internet-enabled devices and cripple businesses.
The cyberattack was caused in part by malware directed to more than 10 million Internet-connected devices, including DVRs, thermostats and closed-circuit video cameras. It caused a distributed denial-of-service attack (i.e., service interruption) that hit in three waves. Dyn, an Internet services company that directs Internet traffic, reported that the attack hit all of its 18 data centers globally. Early reports show that the disruption may be responsible for up to $110 million in lost revenue and sales. Perhaps most troubling is that the group claiming responsibility said the attack is merely a dry run for much larger attacks.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo v. Robins, courts have begun to ratchet back prior decisions on the minimum standard to plead an injury sufficient to establish Article III standing. The recent Eighth Circuit opinion in Braitberg v. Charter Communications adds to the growing number of cases defendants will rely upon to get data breach cases dismissed at the pleadings stage. Braitberg addressed standing in the context of the retention, use, and protection of personally identifiable information. Although the case did not involve a data breach, its holding is however instructive when defending against such cases.
In Braitberg, plaintiff alleged that he was required to provide personally identifiable information to purchase cable services and that the cable provider improperly retained his information long after he cancelled the services in violation of the Cable Communications Policy Act (“CCPA”).
Prior to Spokeo, such claims would have been sufficient to establish Article III standing because the Eighth Circuit permitted the actual injury requirement to be satisfied solely by pleading that there was an invasion of a legal right that Congress created. The Supreme Court in Spokeo held that Article III standing requires a “concrete injury” even in the context of a statutory violation.
With the benefit of Spokeo’s guidance, the Eighth Circuit acknowledged that Spokeo superseded its prior precedent. Accordingly, the panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint for lack of Article III standing and failure to state a claim. In doing so, the panel rejected arguments that CCPA created standing to sue where the defendant merely retained the data in violation of the statute with no other injury. It further rejected an economic argument that retention of the data deprived plaintiff of the full value of the services received from the company.
This decision is important for two reasons. First, the Eighth Circuit further narrowed the scope of allegations that will give rise to Article III standing in a post-Spokeo world. Second, in denying the economic argument, the court cut off an alternative avenue by which plaintiffs have successfully alleged harm.
Ransomware attacks are on the rise and expected to reach epidemic proportions. The most publicized attack took place this year at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center when it was forced to declare an “internal emergency” after a ransomware attack locked down its systems. Businesses that are viewed as offering a combination of valuable data and weak security may be seen as attractive to attackers. Some attackers have strictly financial motivations while others may simply be in it for “the data.”
According to Cisco’s Midyear Cybersecurity Report, email and malicious advertising are the primary ways ransomware infiltrates a system. Businesses often pay the ransom but even when paid, files may be lost or altered in ways that could be devastating to the business.
Cisco reports that companies entering into M&A deals often do not conduct enough due diligence on the risk posture of the acquired business and realize their shortcomings after the deal is done, when it is too late to remediate problems or when it’s harder to do so because the networks are intertwined.
What can you do? Robust security is clearly the first step to prevent attacks and that begins with the creation of a comprehensive privacy and security roadmap that addresses high risk areas, compliance gaps and specific tactics for incident preparedness. It is important to involve experienced counsel at the outset to not only advise on the array of federal and state privacy and cybersecurity laws and help develop the policy but also to direct any security investigation so that consultants can report potential vulnerabilities to outside counsel to protect potentially negative findings from discovery in future litigation.
On September 7th, the Federal Trade Commission will begin its series of seminars on new and emerging technologies with a workshop on ransomware.
Online retailers across the United States have one more issue to consider as they prepare for the next sale: a growing number of lawsuits under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) alleging that standard online terms of service agreements on websites violate the New Jersey bar on deceptive notices.
The TCCWNA—N.J.S.A. 56:12-14 et. seq.—was enacted in 1981 to prohibit businesses from using provisions that deceived consumers about their legal rights. The statute provides a private right of action that allows both actual customers and prospective buyers to bring suit against businesses. Businesses that violate the TCCWNA are liable to aggrieved consumers for $100, actual damages, or both, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.
To read the full text of the Alert, please visit www.duanemorris.com.