Recently published by Cambridge University Press, Re-Engineering Humanity explores how artificial intelligence, automated decisionmaking, the increasing use of Big Data are shaping the future of humanity. This excellent interdisciplinary book is co-authored by Professors Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann, and it critically examines three interrelated questions. Under what circumstances can using technology make us more like simple machines than actualized human beings? Why does the diminution of our human potential matter? What will it take to build a high-tech future that human beings can flourish in? This is a book that will make you think about technology in a new and provocative way.
I hope you enjoy my latest cartoon about passwords on the Dark Web. These days, it seems, login credentials and other personal data are routinely stocking the shelves of the Dark Web. Last year, a hacker was peddling 117 million LinkedIn user email and passwords. And, late last year, researchers found a file with 1.4 billion passwords for sale on the Dark Web. Hackers will have happy shopping for a long time.
In In re Zappos.com, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation (9th Cir., Mar. 8, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued a decision that represents a more expansive way to understand data security harm. The case arises out of a breach where hackers stole personal data on 24 million+ individuals. Although some plaintiffs alleged they suffered identity theft as a result of the breach, other plaintiffs did not. The district court held that the plaintiffs that hadn’t yet suffered an identity theft lacked standing.
Standing is a requirement in federal court that plaintiffs must allege that they have suffered an “injury in fact” — an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent. If plaintiffs lack standing, their case is dismissed and can’t proceed. For a long time, most litigation arising out of data breaches was dismissed for lack of standing because courts held that plaintiffs whose data was compromised in a breach didn’t suffer any harm. Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, 568 U.S. 398 (2013). In that case, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs couldn’t prove for certain that they were under surveillance. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs were merely speculating about future possible harm.
Early on, most courts rejected standing in data breach cases. A few courts resisted this trend, including the 9th Circuit in Krottner v. Starbucks Corp., 628 F.3d 1139 (9th Cir. 2010). There, the court held that an increased future risk of harm could be sufficient to establish standing.
Recently, South Dakota and Alabama passed data breach notification laws. These were the last two states to pass such laws, and now all 50 states have breach notification laws. There’s also a federal breach notification requirement under HIPAA (passed with the HITECH Act of 2009).
In 2003, California passed the first data breach notification law. The law didn’t get a lot of attention until the ChoicePoint data breach was announced in 2005. That breach attracted national media attention largely because people started receiving notification letters in the mail. Other states started to follow California’s lead, passing their own breach notification laws. Now, just 15 years later, a milestone has been reached with all 50 states having breach notification laws. Washington, DC also has a breach notification law.
There still is no omnibus federal breach notification statute — just the requirement for health data (protected health information) under HIPAA. Other countries have started to jump on the notification bandwagon. Canada will have a breach notification requirement starting on November 1, 2018. In the EU, the GDPR has a breach notification requirement.
I have mixed feelings about breach notification laws. On the pro side, they have shed a lot of light on data breaches, which used to remain hushed up. The bright light has shown us just how woeful the state of data security is. Individuals have learned a lot from the process as well, including how often their data is affected.
But on the con side, breach notification laws are a great expense to comply with, amounting to a de facto strict liability fine on organizations that suffer a breach. The expense is the same no matter whether a company was careful, negligent, or even reckless with regard to its data security. But the most problematic thing about breach notification laws is that they have put so much focus on breach response when so many other dimensions of data security are being neglected. Many policymakers have looked to breach notification as the primary policy response to the problem of data security, but breach notification alone is far from a solution.
Professor Woodrow Hartzog and I are currently working on a book that will explore these issues, so please stay tuned.
My new article was just published: Risk and Anxiety: A Theory of Data Breach Harms, 96 Texas Law Review 737 (2018). I co-authored the piece with Professor Danielle Keats Citron. We argue that the issue of harm needs a serious rethinking. Courts are too quick to conclude that data breaches don’t create harm. There are two key dimensions to data breach harm — risk and anxiety — both of which have been an area of struggle for courts.
Many courts find that anything involving risk is too difficult to measure and not concrete enough to constitute actual injury. Yet, outside of the world of the judiciary, other fields and industries have recognized risk as something concrete. Today, risk is readily quantified, addressed, and factored into countless decisions of great importance. As we note in the article: “Ironically, the very companies being sued for data breaches make high-stakes decisions about cyber security based upon an analysis of risk.” Despite the challenges of addressing risk, courts in other areas of law have done just that. These bodies of law are oddly ignored in data breach cases.
When it comes to anxiety — the emotional distress people might feel based upon a breach — courts often quickly dismiss it by noting that emotional distress alone is too vague and unsupportable in proof to be recognized as harm. Yet in other areas of law, emotional distress alone is sufficient to establish harm. In many cases, this fact is so well-settled that harm is rarely an issue in dispute.
We aim to provide greater coherence to this troubled body of law. We work our way through a series of examples — various types of data breach — and discuss whether harm should be recognized. We don’t think harm should be recognized in all instances, but there are many situations where we would find harm where the majority of courts today would not.
The article can be downloaded for free on SSRN.
Here’s the abstract: