After nine months of intense negotiations and uncertainty, and despite ongoing criticisms from powerful data protection regulators, the new EU-U.S. Privacy Shield program went into effect this week as the U.S. Department of Commerce began accepting applications online. Some companies that are self-certifying their compliance have already submitted their documentation and many more are expected to do so in the coming days and weeks as they seek shelter under the replacement for the long-standing EU-U.S. Safe Harbor arrangement that was invalidated by the European Court of Justice last year.

Companies can now “sign up” for the Privacy Shield list, but they should not expect a rubber stamp from the Commerce Department just because they have self-certified. To ensure that their applications are approved, companies should take the following steps:

  • Confirm that they are eligible to participate—not all organizations are. Only companies subject to the jurisdiction of the FTC or the DOT may participate at this time
  • Develop a Privacy Shield-compliant privacy policy statement
  • Identify their independent recourse mechanism—under the new framework, self-certifying organizations must provide an independent recourse mechanism available to investigate unresolved complaints at no cost to the individual
  • Ensure that they have compliance verification mechanisms in place
  • Designate contacts within their organizations to serve as liaisons regarding the Privacy Shield
  • Review the information required to self-certify
  • Go online to www.privacyshield.gov to self-certify


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It’s been awhile since last we published for our firm blog Media & Privacy Risk Report, and one thing is largely to blame: ransomware attacks on our clients have been keeping us very busy. We’ve learned many lessons from these attacks that we plan to share over the coming months with our readers. But the focus of this post is recent guidance from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services (OCR) indicating that any ransomware attack involving protected health information PHI) could be a data breach with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) reporting obligations.

Often in ransomware matters, a hacker encrypts data and demands that a ransom be paid (usually in Bitcoin) before the hacker will decrypt the data and make it once again accessible to the data owner (or covered entity) or maintainer (or business associate). But just because a hacker has frozen your data, does that mean that the hacker has accessed, acquired or exfiltrated your data? Isn’t it possible that a hacker could freeze your data without accessing, acquiring or exfiltrating it? By analogy, couldn’t someone render the locks on your house unusable (and thus your house inaccessible to you without a forced break-in) without actually accessing your house, acquiring anything within your house, or taking anything out of your house? It would seem that the answer would be yes. But if the OCR is asked that question, the presumption is that the answer is no, at least in the realm of ransomware attacks.
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As published in State Bar of Michigan Health Care Law Section

“In recent years, the likelihood of suffering a data breach has risen significantly for American companies across numerous industries. Health care providers, in particular, have been targeted due to the value of the sensitive information they hold regarding their patients and employees, including birth

Last week, the European Commission unveiled the latest documentation related to the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield intended to restore trust in transatlantic data transfer and establish a mechanism for U.S. companies to once again transfer data from the EU with confidence. We wrote last month about the initial announcement of the Privacy Shield but expressed caution

In a February 19th speech at the annual SEC Speaks conference, Stephanie Avakian, Deputy Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, explained what the SEC expects of entities that experience a cyber intrusion and how the SEC decides whether to investigate such entities.

With respect to responding to cyber intrusion, the SEC’s stated expectations are high level and axiomatic. Entities are expected to (1) assess the situation, (2) address the problem and (3) minimize the damage. Ms. Avakian emphasized the importance of quickly involving authorities such as the FBI or Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Avakian also expressed awareness of the practical impediments to self-reporting cyber intrusions to the SEC. Specifically, entities may be hesitant to do so for fear of triggering an investigation and enforcement action regarding their policies/procedures and implementation thereof. To assuage this concern, Ms. Avakian noted that the SEC’s goals in the cybersecurity area are to prevent hacking, protect customer data and ensure the smooth operation of America’s financial system. In other words, the SEC—at least from a priority standpoint—is on the same side as the entities that may fall prey to a cyber intrusion. In the case of registrants, when investigating cyber intrusions the SEC will focus on whether a registrant had policies and procedures reasonably designed to protect customer data and related remediation action plans. In the case of public companies, the SEC is not looking to second-guess good-faith decisions regarding data privacy, and would likely not bring an enforcement action against a cyber intrusion victim absent a “significant” disclosure issue. Ms. Avakian also pointed out that entities who self-disclose cyber intrusions will be rewarded with cooperation credit.  
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Politicians in both the European Union and United States touted Tuesday’s agreement on a new “Privacy Shield” for EU-U.S. data transfers as a resolution to the data transfer quagmire that has faced companies since the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor was invalidated in October. While this new deal is a promising step in the right direction for companies that transfer data from the EU to the United States, there are still many questions about exactly what the requirements of the new Privacy Shield will be, how an American company can ensure compliance with those requirements and (perhaps most importantly) whether the European Court of Justice will validate the new rules.

Indeed, the deal heralded by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic appears to be only a high-level agreement—they expect to document the actual terms over the next few weeks (the Article 29 Working Party (WP29), the body made up of representatives of individual European Member States’ data protection authorities, has called for it to be fully documented by the end of February). Thus, we anticipate quite a bit more negotiation on the precise scope and language of the requirements. Meanwhile, WP29, which had been assessing data transfer mechanisms like standard contractual clauses and model contracts for possible flaws that would lead to enforcement actions, announced that it will not take enforcement actions based on its concerns about these mechanisms while it awaits the details of the new transfer deal.
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On July 20, 2015, the Seventh Circuit reinstated a data breach class action in Remijas v. Neiman Marcus Group, LLC, No. 14-3122, after a 2013 malware attack on Neiman Marcus’s computer systems that resulted in the theft of customers’ credit and debit card information. The plaintiffs argued that they had constitutional standing to pursue their claims against the retailer based on an alleged increased risk of future fraudulent charges and greater susceptibility to identity theft. This decision is troubling and could have a potentially significant and wide-ranging impact on pending and future class actions brought in the wake of similar data breaches. In fact, plaintiffs’ lawyers already are citing the decision in other data breach class actions facing Rule 12 standing challenges. See, e.g., In re Barnes & Noble Pin Pad Litigation, No. 12-08617, U.S. Northern District of Illinois.
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A familiar refrain of some corporate clients discussing data breaches is: “We’re not a health care company. We also don’t process customer credit card transactions. We really don’t collect protected health information or personally identifiable information from customers in any way. Do we need to be worried about data breaches?” A June 15, 2015 decision from the U.S. Central District of California reaffirms that the answer is a resounding, unqualified YES for any company that has employees, which means almost any company of any kind, regardless of whether it provides health-care-related services or processes customer credit card transactions.
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As we reach the midpoint of 2015, it is a good time to check in on the progress of the Data Breach and Security Notification Act of 2015 that is making its way through Congress. Most privacy experts and data breach practitioners agree that a single nationwide data breach notification statute would be superior to the current state-by-state regime—it would certainly make data breach response much easier and more cost-effective—but there is considerable debate about what that statute should say. 
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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may be yet another new sheriff in town (in addition to all the other sheriffs such as the FTC, FCC, SEC, OCR, OIG, state AGs, etc.), poised to box the ears of data breach “scofflaws” with expensive, time-consuming, conflicting and perhaps impossible-to-comply-with requirements related to computer security incidents.
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