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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

FTC Issues Final Breach Notification Rules as Required by the Stimulus Bill

By Mehmet Munur

On August 18, Federal Trade Commission issued the final rules on breach notification as required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus bill. The rules will take effect in 30 days from publication in the Federal Register. The FTC will only begin enforcement after 180 days of the publication of the final rules.

The final rules addressed the public comments to the proposed rules, clarified certain issues such as the broad scope of the rules, the application of either the HHS or FTC breach notification rules, notifying individuals by email, notifying the FTC for breaches involving more than 500 individuals, and privacy notices.

FTC received 129 comments related to its notice of proposed rulemaking. Google (see our previous blog post on Google Health) was noticeably absent from the list, while Microsoft (see our previous blog post on HealthVault) commented on several issues including email notices and use of cloud computing storage. Microsoft’s concerns related to cloud computing prompted FTC to require that vendors of PHR and PHR related entities notify their third party service providers of their status as vendors of PHR.

The FTC adopted the definition of personal health record without modification. Under the proposed rules, breach of name and credit card numbers would have triggered a notification. The FTC backed away from that interpretation and now states that name and credit card numbers alone will not constitute personal health record. On the other hand, FTC renewed its statement that de-identified data would not be considered personal health record “[g]iven the small risk that such data will be re-identified by unauthorized third parties.” Such references show FTC’s renewed interest in the identification of individuals using non-personally identifiable information. FTC had previously mentioned the issue in February in the Behavioral Advertising Staff Report.

The FTC confirmed the wide scope of the new breach notification rules. The proposed rule applies to vendors of PHR and PHR related entities “irrespective of any jurisdictional tests in the Federal Trade Commission Act.” Therefore, even if an entity is not covered by the FTC Act, it may fall under the scope of the breach notification. Additionally, the Commission reiterated that “foreign entities with U.S. customers must provide breach notification under U.S. laws.” Similar to the EU Data Protection Directive, the rules appear to apply to the individual’s data regardless of the data’s location.

The FTC agreed with some of the commentators to the proposed rules that some entities would be covered by both the FTC and the HHS rules. Therefore, the FTC “consulted with HHS to harmonize the two rules, within the constraints of the statutory language.” A related issue concerned the provision of a single breach notification for a single breach, though several entities may be involved. The FTC addresses this issue by providing examples of when entities may comply with both the FTC and the HHS requirements to provide notice.


The final rules also addressed privacy notices and, with it, FTC’s recent incursion into privacy enforcement and behavioral advertising. FTC addressed privacy notices because the “final rule provides that a breach of security means acquisition of information without the authorization of the individual.” FTC stated that “an entity’s use of information to enhance individuals’ experience with their PHR would be within the scope of the individuals’ authorization, as long as such use is consistent with the entity’s disclosures and individuals’ reasonable expectations.” The FTC reiterated its suspicion of lengthy privacy notices, which it originally voiced in the Behavioral Advertising Staff Report, by stating that “the Commission expects that vendors of personal health records and PHR related entities would limit the sharing of consumers’ information, unless the consumers exercise meaningful choice in consenting to such sharing. Buried disclosures in lengthy privacy policies do not satisfy the standard of “meaningful choice.”” The FTC cited to the recent Sears enforcement to reinforce its seriousness in enforcing the meaningful choice doctrine. There, Sears had buried its data mining activities deep in its privacy policy instead of providing clear and conspicuous notice of the broad scope of its activities. This could be an indication that the FTC may consider data processing without adequate notice as a data breach.

The final rules now make it easier to provide individual notice through email as well. The FTC is persuaded that the relationship between the vendors of PHR, PHR related entities, and consumers take place online, email notice can be used as a default option. Individual’s express affirmative consent to notify by email is no longer necessary. Nevertheless, the consumers must still have a meaningful choice not to receive notice by email. Additionally, the FTC made it clear that no confirmation is required for the receipt of emails, only “reasonable efforts to contact all individuals” is required. EPIC advocated for social media breach notification. The FTC declined to adopt such measure, but stated that the rule did not preclude other forms of notice in addition to the required forms. We are looking forward to public reactions to the first social media breach notification on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Web postings related to breaches on entities’ websites now need not be maintained for 6 months. The FTC shortened the public posting on websites to 90 days. With respect to notifying the FTC of breaches for breaches involving more than 500 people, the FTC increased the time to provide notice to FTC to 10 business days from 5. In addition, entities may use the form created by the FTC to notify the FTC about breaches. Email notification of the FTC is not an option at this time due to security concerns.

While the effective date of the rules were set by the Stimulus Bill and cannot be changed, the FTC stated that it will “will use its enforcement discretion to refrain from bringing an enforcement action for failure to provide the required notifications for breaches that are discovered” 180 after the publication of the final rules. The HHS should shortly follow with its final rules on the Stimulus Bill.

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