The FTC is seeking public comment on a petition by Sear’s to reopen and modify its 2009 consent order to restrict the broad definition of “tracking application”.

Background.  In 2009, the FTC issued an order settling charges that Sears Holdings Management Corporation (“Sears”) had failed to adequately disclose the scope of consumers’ personal information it collected via a downloadable software application.  While Sears represented to consumers that the software would track their “online browsing”, the FTC alleged that the software would also monitor consumers’ other online secure sessions – including sessions on third parties’ websites — and collect information transmitted in those sessions, “such as the contents of shopping carts, online bank statements, drug prescription records, video rental records, library borrowing histories, and the sender, recipient, subject, and size for web-based emails.”  The software would also track some computer activities unrelated to the Internet.  The proposed settlement called for Sears to stop collecting data from consumers who downloaded the software, and to destroy all data it had previously collected.

The 2009 Sears case is significant, among other reasons, because, the FTC found a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act notwithstanding Sears’ disclosure, because the disclosure was not sufficiently conspicuous.  Specifically, while Sears did disclose the full scope of the software’s specific functions, the details of such functions were contained on approximately the 75th line of the scroll box containing the privacy statement and user license agreement.  The FTC order stated that because such description was not displayed clearly and prominently, that Sears was being “unfair and deceptive” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

Petition.  On October 30, 2017, Sears petitioned the FTC to reopen and modify its final order to modify the broad definition of “tracking application”.   Sears states that the current definition should be updated because of changing circumstances over the past eight years which result in the definition unnecessarily restricting Sears’s ability to compete in the mobile app marketplace. Sears states that the requested modification would enable the company to “keep step with current market practices” related to retail online tracking applications.

  • Definition. Paragraph 4 of the consent order defines “tracking application” as:  “any software program or application disseminated by or on behalf of respondent, its subsidiaries or affiliated companies, that is capable of being installed on consumers’ computers and used by or on behalf of respondent to monitor, record, or transmit information about activities occurring on computers on which it is installed, or about data that is stored on, created on, transmitted from, or transmitted to the computers on which it is installed.” 
  • Modification. Sears requests that the following additional language be inserted after the word “installed”: “unless the information monitored, recorded, or transmitted is limited solely to the following: (a) the configuration of the software program or application itself; (b) information regarding whether the program or application is functioning as represented; or (c) information regarding consumers’ use of the program or application itself.”
  • Rationale. Sears states that the proposed modification is necessary to carve out commonly accepted and expected behaviors from the scope of the Order without modifying the Order’s core manage of providing notice to consumers when software applications engaged in potentially invasive tracking.  Sears states subparts (a) and (b) would exclude “activities common to all modern software applications” while subpart (c) would exclude “information tracking that is commonly accepted by consumers and that does not present the type of risks to consumer privacy that the Order was intended to remedy.” Sears further states that the proposed modification mirrors language that the FTC has used to exclude such commonly accepted practices from more recent consent orders.

Solicitation of Public Comment.  On November 8, the FTC issued a release seeking public comment on Sear’s petition requesting that it reopen and modify the 2009 order and definition.  The FTC will decide whether to approve Sears’ petition following the expiration of the 30-day public comment period.  Public comments may be submitted under December 8, 2017.

To view the 2009 FTC Order, click here.

To view Sears’s Petition, click here:

To view FTC’s solicitation of public comment click here.

 

On August 7 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), through its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), published a Risk Alert summarizing observations on how broker dealers, investment advisers, and investment companies have addressed cybersecurity issues. The OCIE examined 75 financial firms registered with the SEC. The examinations focused on the firms’ written policies regarding cybersecurity. The OCIE observed increased cybersecurity preparedness since a similar 2014 observational initiative was conducted but also noticed areas of compliance and oversight that could be improved.

In particular, the OCIE observed that almost all firms that were examined maintain cyber-security related written procedures regarding protection of customer and shareholder records and information. Additionally, the examinations confirmed many of the firms are conducting cybersecurity risk assessments, penetration tests and vulnerability scans, and maintaining clearly defined cybersecurity organizational charts for workforces. However, the OCIE also observed that, in some cases, firms are administering vague or unclear cybersecurity policies, are not adequately following cybersecurity policies, or are not conducting adequate system maintenance to address system vulnerabilities. The Risk Alert concluded that, despite some improvements, cybersecurity remains one of the top compliance risks for financial firms. The OCIE noted that it will continue to monitor financial firms’ compliance in this area.

To view the Risk Alert, click here.

 

This month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued guidance for businesses operating websites and online services looking to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”). COPPA addresses the collection of personal information from children under 13.  Importantly, the determination of whether a business’s website is “directed to children under 13” (and thus subject to certain COPPA requirements) is based on a variety of factors – thus even website that do not target children as its primary audience may nonetheless be subject to COPPA’s requirements based on the website’s subject matter, visual and audio content, ads on the site that may be directed to children, and other factors.

The FTC’s guidance notes that updates to the COPPA regulations were made in July 2013 to reflect changes in technology, and reminded businesses that violations can result in law enforcement actions as well as civil penalties.  The compliance guidance sets out steps to (1) determining whether your business is covered by COPPA; (2) if so, what steps need to be taken to ensure compliance, including privacy policy provisions, notifying and obtaining verifiable consent from parents, (3) providing methods for parents to review, delete, or revoke consent, and (4) implementing reasonable security procedures. Finally, the guidance provides a chart describing limited exceptions to the parental consent requirement.

  • Step 1: Determine if Your Company is a Website or Online Service that Collects Personal Information from Kids Under 13.
  • Step 2: Post a Privacy Policy that Complies with COPPA.
  • Step 3: Notify Parents Directly Before Collecting Personal Information from Their Kids.
  • Step 4: Get Parents’ Verifiable Consent Before Collecting Personal Information from Their Kids.
  • Step 5: Honor Parents’ Ongoing Rights with Respect to Personal Information Collected from Their Kids.
  • Step 6: Implement Reasonable Procedures to Protect the Security of Kids’ Personal Information.
  • Chart: Limited Exceptions to COPPA’s Verifiable Parental Consent Requirement

The six COPPA compliance steps are described below. To view the FTC’s full guidance webpage, click here.

NOTE:  In addition to COPPA, it may be worth determining whether California’s state version of COPPA, the California Online Privacy Protection Act (“CalOPPA”) applies to your business and, if so, whether additional compliance measures may be necessary. CAlOPPA broadly applies whenever a website or app collects “personally identifiable information” or PII (as defined in the state’s business code) from a California resident, and thus applies to the vast majority of online businesses, even if not based in California.

 

 

 

 

On May 31, 2017, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) released an update to its Cybersecurity Assessment Tool.

The Cybersecurity Assessment Tool was originally released by the FFIEC in June of 2015 to help financial institutions identify their risks and assess their cybersecurity preparedness.  The Cybersecurity Assessment Tool is intended to be used by financial institutions of all sizes to perform a self-assessment and inform their risk management strategies. Upon the release of the original Cybersecurity Assessment Tool, the FFIEC noted its plan to update the Cybersecurity Assessment Tool as threats, vulnerabilities, and operational environments evolve.

According to the FFIEC’s May 31st press release, the update to the Cybersecurity Assessment Tool “addresses changes to the FFIEC IT Examination Handbook by providing a revised mapping in Appendix A to the updated Information Security and Management booklets”. The updated Cybersecurity Assessment Tool also provides “additional response options, allowing financial institution management to include supplementary or complementary behaviors, practices and processes that represent current practices of the institution in supporting its cybersecurity activity assessment.”

Financial institutions can find the updated version of the Cybersecurity Assessment Tool here.

On April 4, 2017, President Trump signed legislation repealing the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) privacy protections adopted in October 2016. The regulations, set to go into effect later this year, would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to adopt stricter consumer privacy protections than websites like Google and Facebook. Among other things, the regulations would have required ISPs to obtain consent before sharing sensitive customer proprietary information, take reasonable measures to secure customer proprietary information, provide notification to customers, the FCC and law enforcement in the event of data breaches, and not condition provision of service on the surrender of privacy rights.

The regulations were opposed by many ISPs who felt that they would be at a disadvantage to companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook, who are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Because these companies offer internet services, and do not provide internet connection, they are subject to the less restrictive FTC regulations. While many ISPs have promised not to sell proprietary customer information, these promises are voluntary. President Trump’s repeal leaves the states as the only real possible enforcer of ISP privacy regulations.

Earlier this month, the new cybersecurity regulation from the New York Department of Financial Services (“DFS“) took effect. The new regulation requires banks, insurance companies and other financial services institutions regulated by the DFS to establish and maintain a cybersecurity program designed to protect consumers and ensure the safety and soundness of New York State’s financial services industry.

The final cybersecurity regulation is very similar to the proposed regulation, which we reported on in a previous post, but contains a few notable changes:

  • Record retention requirements for audit trails designed to detect and respond to Cybersecurity Events were reduced from five years to three years.
  • Clarification that Covered Entities’ policies and procedures regarding notice to be provided by Third Party Service Providers of Cybersecurity Events cover only Covered Entity’s Nonpublic Information being held by the Third Party Service Provider.
  • Clarification of the circumstances under which a Covered Entity must provide notice of Cybersecurity Event to the Superintendent.
  • The limited exemptions have been revised to specifically include the number of employees and the gross annual revenue of a Covered Entity’s affiliates located in New York.
  • Clarification on the exemptions available for companies regulated under New York’s Insurance Law.

Financial institutions in other states may wish to pay particular attention to this “first-in-the-nation cybersecurity regulation” issued by a state financial regulator, particularly as it may be only a matter of time before other states follow New York’s lead.

The DFS regulation, 23 N.Y.C.R.R. Part 500, is available here.

Vintage toned Wall Street at sunset, NYC.

Today, acting FTC Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a joint statement on the FCC’s issuance of a temporary stay of a data security regulation for broadband providers scheduled to take effect on March 2.  In their statement, they advocate for a “comprehensive and consistent framework”, so that Americans do not have to “figure out if their information is protected differently depending on which part of the Internet holds it.”

The Chairmen stated that for this reason, they disagreed with the FCC’s 2015 unilateral decision to strip the FTC of its authority over broadband provider’s privacy and data security practices, and believed that jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy and data security practices should be returned to the FTC, thus subjecting “all actors in the online space” to the same rules.

Until then, the joint statement provides, the two chairmen “will work together on harmonizing the FCC’s privacy rules for broadband provider with the FTC’s standards for other companies in the digital economy.”  The statement provides that the FCC order was inconsistent with the FTC’s privacy framework. The stay will remain in place only until the FCC is able to rule on a petition for reconsideration of its privacy rules.

In response to concerns that the temporary delay of a rule not yet in effect will leave consumers unprotected, the Chairmen agree that it is vital to fill the consumer protection gap, but that “how that gap is filled matters” – it does not serve consumer’s interests to create two separate and distinct frameworks – one for Internet service providers and another for all other online companies.

Going forward, the statement says, the FTC and the FCC will work together to establish a uniform and technology-neutral privacy framework for the online world.

To view the joint FTC and FCC statement, click here.

To view the FCC Order staying the regulation, click here.

Today, Vizio, Inc., agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges by the FTC and the New Jersey Attorney General that it installed software on its Smart TGVS to collect viewing data on 11 million consumer televisions without the consumers’ knowledge or consent. The $2.2 million payment includes a $1.5 million payment to the FTC, and a $1 million payment to the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, although $300,000 will be suspended and vacated after 5 years upon compliance with the order.   In a concurring statement, Commission Ohlhausen supported the order, but questioned the FTC’s allegation that individualized television viewing activity falls within the definition of sensitive information.

The 2014 complaint alleged that Vizio and an affiliate company manufactures smart TVs that capture second-by-second information about video displayed on the Smart TV, including video from consumer cable, broadband, set-top box, DVD, over-the-air broadcasts, and streaming devices.  In addition, Vizio facilitated the integration of specific demographic information (e.g., sex, age, income, marital status, household size, educational level, home ownership, household value, etc.) to the viewing data.  Vizio then sold the information to third parties, who used it for various purposes, including targeted advertising to consumers across devices.

According to the complaint, Vizio touted its “Smart Interactivity” features that “enables program offers and suggestions”, but failed to inform consumers that the settings also enabled the collection of consumer’s viewing data. The complaint alleges that Vizio’s data tracking, – which occurred without viewer’s informed consent – was unfair and deceptive. The Complaint charges that the Defendants participated in deceptive and unfair acts in violation of Section 5 of the FTC act, and similar charges under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, in connection with the unfair collection and sharing of consumers’ Viewing Data and deception concerning their “Smart Interactivity” features.

As part of the settlement, Vizio stipulated to a federal court order that:

  • Requires Vizio to prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent of its data collection and sharing practices;
  • prohibits misrepresentations about the privacy, security, or confidentiality of consumer information they collect;
  • requires Vizio to delete data collected before March 1, 2016; and
  • requires Vizio to implement (and review biennially) a comprehensive data privacy program.

In a concurring statement, Commissioner Ohlhausen supported Count II of the complaint, alleging that Vizio deceptively omitted information about its data collection and sharing program.  However, she expressed concern about the implications of Count I, which alleged that granular (household or individual) television viewing activity is sensitive information, and that sharing this viewing information without consent causes or is likely to cause  a “substantial injury” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.  Although Commissioner Ohlhausen acknowledged that there may be good policy reasons to consider such information, she states that the statute does not allow the FTC to find a practice unfair based primarily on public policy, and that this case demonstrates “the need for the FTC to examine more rigorously what constitutes ‘substantial injury” in the context of information about consumers. Ohlhausen indicated that she will launch an effort in the coming weeks to examine this issue further.

To view the stipulated order, click here.

To view Commissioner Ohlhausen’s concurring statement click here.

 

Woman Touching Screen Electronic Tablet Hand.Project Manager Researching ProcessOn November 11, 2016, Facebook announced to USA TODAY that it would no longer allow advertisers to exclude specific racial and ethnic groups when placing ads related to housing, credit or employment, according to a statement by Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice-president of U.S. public policy to USA Today.  According to the news article, Facebook will also require advertisers to affirm that they will not place discriminatory ads on Facebook, and will plan to offer educational materials to help advertisers understand their obligations.

Continue Reading Facebook to Stop Ads Targeting, Excluding Racial and Ethnic Groups

Fiber Optic cables and UTP Network cablesOn October 27, 2016, the FCC released rules to “empower consumers to decide how data are used and shared by broadband providers.”  In the order, the FCC defines information protected under Section 222 for telecommunications carriers as “customer proprietary information (customer PI)”, to include the following: (1) individually identifiable Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI), (2) personally identifiable information (PII) and (3) content of communications.  The FCC also adopts and explains its multi-part approach to determining whether data has been properly de-identified and is therefore not subject to the customer choice regime adopted by the FCC for customer PI. Much of the rules are modeled after FTC best practices and the White House Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Continue Reading FCC Adopts Privacy Rules Protecting Broadband and other Telecommunications Customers