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House Passes Comprehensive Data Security Legislation

09 December 2009

On December 8, the House of Representatives by voice vote passed H.R. 2221, entitled the "Data Accountability and Trust Act," which would require all organizations engaged in interstate commerce that manage or contract another to manage electronic data containing personal information to comply with a comprehensive set of standards designed to protect that information from unnecessary disclosure and to prevent identity theft and other fraud.

These measures include:

  • Requiring covered organizations to establish and implement comprehensive policies and procedures regarding information security practices for the treatment and protection of personal information, tailored to the individual organization's capabilities.  This would include:

    • the creation of a security policy;
    • the identification of a security officer or other individual as the point of contact for the organization's security program;
    • the creation of a process for assessing vulnerabilities to electronic systems containing personal information, including regular monitoring for security breaches;
    • the creation of a process for taking preventative and corrective action to mitigate against any vulnerabilities found; and
    • the creation of a process for the secure disposal of obsolete data.

  • Subjecting data brokers maintaining PII to standards similar to credit reporting agencies, including allowing individuals to request and correct false information maintained about them, and punishing data brokers for the unauthorized disclosure of personal information through "pretexting" -- that is, obtaining or hiring someone who obtains personal information of others through false pretenses.
  • Creating a federal data breach notification requirement that would mandate any organization suffering a breach of personal information to notify all affected individuals, unless it determines that there is no reasonable risk of identity theft, fraud, or other unlawful conduct (which can be presumed if the data is properly encrypted or otherwise rendered in an electronic form unreadable or undecipherable).  Organizations suffering breaches would also be required to provide consumer credit reports to affected individuals on a quarterly basis for two years.

The FTC would be directed to pass regulations and guidance implementing and interpreting many of the specifics, and would be granted civil enforcement authority through its power under the FTC Act to prevent unfair and deceptive trade practices.  In addition, the bill would empower state attorneys general to bring civil actions to enforce its provisions with regard to violations against residents of their respective states.

Penalties would be substantial.  The failure of any covered organization to implement a comprehensive data security program or of data brokers to implement requirements specific to them would carry a maximum penalty of $11,000 per violation -- which in the case of the data security program would be $11,000 per day -- up to a maximum of $5,000,000.  Failing to comply with the breach notification provision would carry a penalty of up to $11,000 per failed notification, up to a maximum of $5,000,000, which could theoretically be reached by an unreported breach of the personal information of only 455 individuals .

Importantly, the bill would preempt the breach notification laws of forty-five states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as the recent controversial Massachusetts regulations requiring the creation of a comprehensive data security program and policy of all organizations maintaining the electronic personal information of residents of that state.  It would not, however, replace any of the parallel federal breach notification standards, such as the breach notification rule recently issued by the department of Health and Human Services under the HITECH Act and other disclosure requirements under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

Just last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two bills very similar to H.R. 2221.  While there are some notable differences -- including criminal penalties, an applicability threshold for the data security program requirement, and express exemptions for entities in compliance with similar federal regulations in the Senate versions, and prohibition of pretexting and higher penalties in the House version -- all three bills have enjoyed bipartisan support and their purposes are aligned.  Though health care and other items remain higher on the Senate's agenda, and the full chamber is unlikely to vote on the bills for some time, proponents are now likely to point to the momentum generated by the passage of the House version to bring the issue before the Senate sooner rather than later.

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