By Michael Santarcangelo and Patrick Romero

There are roughly 40 states that have some sort of “data-breach” law or bill being considered that force notification of a company’s security breach (or suspected breach) to their consumers. These laws were enacted as a way to force companies to disclose the possibility that individuals personal information was compromised and that they could potentially become victims of identity theft.

Over the coming months, we’ll spend some time exploring how the different states are handling these statutes. When you peel the layers back a bit, and consider them from different angles, we can learn some interesting elements – useful to us from individual and organizational perspectives.

Even with these new laws in effect, it seems that there is little a person can due to hold a company liable for a data-breach based on their weak security standards. Recently, state governments have begun to change this by imposing liability on the retail business and others, thereby opening the door for consumers to sue companies that do not adequately protect the personal information that they collect.

This is a serious issue that has implications for everyone involved – and ultimately requires clear definitions, mutual understanding and will take years to sort through. In the meantime, we’re going to ignite our series of articles exploring these laws and developments by analyzing some recent events.

Minnesota PCI Legislation
Effective August 1st 2007, Minnesota became the first state to require that all companies handling credit and debit card data comply with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) data security standard (in a future article or podcast, we’ll explore and debate the value of tying the PCI standard to the legislation – Michael).

The state’s new Plastic Card Security Act would prohibit a company from retaining a credit card’s security code data, the PIN verification code number, or the full contents of any track of magnetic strip data. The new legislation is intended to target retailers who continue to store data in violation of PCI standards. The bill also makes it a violation for retailers to a credit card holder’s PIN number longer than 48 hours after authorization of their transaction. Similar bills are pending in Texas, Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

The significant of this legislation is important in light of recent ruling by courts that have dismissed class action suits against companies following data-breaches. On August 23, 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that identity-theft monitoring costs paid for by the plaintiffs were not compensable damages under Indian’s security breach notification statute. In Pisciotta v. Old Nat’l Bancorp, the court held that there was no state statute supporting the compensation of incurred costs because “had the Indiana legislature intended that a cause of action should be available against a database owners for failing to protect adequately personal information, we believe it would have made some more definite statement of that intent.” So for the time being, unless you have an actual showing of harm as a victim of identity theft, potential harm will not suffice.

Consequences for the Courts
As more states begin to enact legislation that requires companies to comply with PCI, courts may begin to allow litigants to be compensated as a result of a security break. The argument that courts have made in cases like Pisciotta will clearly be much weaker as states legislatures conspicuously demonstrate their intent to punish companies by enacting specific statutes targeting the security of personal information.

Federal and state courts will feel much more comfortable in their decision to expand their legal theories of liability when supported by statutes that explicitly creates private actions for security breaches. In this context, it is much more likely that Courts will not follow the ruling in Pisciotta until after states pass legislation similar to Minnesota. In other addition, plaintiffs might also receive some relief if a recent bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate gets passed. The bill, known as the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2007, was introduced on October 16, 2007 and would give victims the ability to seek restitution for the loss of time and money as a result of identity theft. Such federal legislation could prove to be effective in jurisdictions with no state identity-theft laws.

Consequences for Businesses
Meanwhile, the retail lobby continues to argue against laws that would hold them liable by arguing that these laws would be too costly and burdensome, especially for small businesses. This apparently was the argument that convinced Governor Schwarnenegger to veto a California law that would have mandated the retail industry comply with PCI requirements. While this may be true, legislation in Minnesota limits this burden by exempting businesses with few than 20,000 transactions from their statute. Clearly, there is a way for the legislature of any state to write a statute that can pressure companies to improve their data security standards without crippling small business owners.

While the retail industry will continue to resist such legislation, there is strong support from banks and credit unions, since in the eyes of consumers they often blamed for such breaches. TJX is currently being sued by several banks
who seek compensation for having to re-issue credit cards and credit monitoring to thousands of their customers as a result of a massive security breach earlier this year. Depending on how the case turns out, the burdens and cost of breaches will shift away from consumers, banks, and credit unions but will perhaps be shared by the retailers and others (of course, the consumer pays in the end).

Preparing for the change
As a consequence of new state and federal legislation, the landscape of data security will continue to evolve, sometimes in seemingly dramatic fashion. Individuals and businesses will most likely be able to get their day in court for incurred damages a result of security breaches by a third-party. Industries that have for now been able to get away with having minimum security standards will begin to take notice of their potential liability and hopefully, will improve the way they guard information. While the process is slow, it appears to be inevitable.

This isn’t doom and gloom.

Many of us have already begun to prepare for these changes by improving and writing security policies that make sense and can be understood, improving the process of protecting information and working to involve users in solution through training and awareness. Focus on the fundamentals of information protection and you’ll be less likely to be the test case.

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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