Part II: Legal Insights on Ashley Madison Hack
As more names emerge from the dark web data dump of Ashley Madison customers, lawyers around the globe have found a very willing group of would-be plaintiffs. Interestingly, all of these plaintiffs are named “Doe,” which must only be a coincidence, and certainly has nothing to do with the backlash that certain well-known ALM clients have experienced. All kidding aside, the size of the claims against ALM is staggering with one suit alleging more than $500 million in damages. How these plaintiffs will prove their damages is a question for another day, but the fact that ALM — which reported earnings of $115 million in 2014 — may soon face financial ruin must give any spectator pause.
The plaintiffs’ bar is certainly not the lone specter haunting ALM’s corridors these days. Although the company touts its cooperation with government officials in attempting to bring criminal charges against the Impact Team, that cooperation will be punctuated by the all-but-certain FTC enforcement action to come — assuming that the FTC’s data breach enforcement team were not among the 15,000 email addresses registered to a .mil or .gov account.
How will that enforcement action proceed? In many cases, the FTC initiates its investigation with a letter, sometimes called an “Access Letter” or an “Informal Inquiry Letter.” Although there is no enforceable authority behind such a letter, companies typically conclude that cooperation is the best course. For more formal investigations (or when the access letter is ignored), the FTC will issue “Civil Investigative Demands,” which are virtually the same as a subpoena, and are enforceable by court order. After collecting materials, the investigators will – in order from best case scenario to worst – drop the matter altogether, negotiate a consent decree, or begin a formal enforcement action via a complaint.
There is, of course, a lot more to an action than what I’ve listed above, which deserves a series of posts of their own. For today, the pressing question is – what’s going to happen to ALM when the FTC calls? Under the circumstances, it would make sense for ALM to push as hard as it can for a consent order, given that the likelihood of succeeding in litigation against the Commission is vanishingly low – there is little doubt that ALM failed to comply with its own promised standards for protecting customer data. And, in light of recent revelations about what really happened when customers paid to “delete” their Ashley Madison accounts, ALM will want to forestall the threat of a separate, non-data breach related unfair business practices suit any way it can.
Every consent order looks different, but the FTC has made a few requirements staples of its agreements with offending businesses over the last two decades. These include:
Establishing and maintaining a comprehensive information security program to protect consumers’ sensitive personal data, including credit card, social security, and bank account numbers.
Establishing and reporting on yearly data security protocol updates and continuing education for decision makers and data security personnel.
Working to improve the transparency of data, so that consumers can access their PII without excessive burdens.
Guaranteeing that all public statements and advertisements about the nature and extent of a company’s privacy and data security protocols are accurate.
ALM will undoubtedly offer to take all of these steps, and more, in negotiations with the Commission. But as I mentioned above, the torrent of lawsuits ALM faces in the next year or so may moot any consent decree with the FTC. If ALM liquidates in the face of ruinous lawsuits and legal bills, the FTC’s demands will be meaningless. ALM, then, is likely an example of a company that would have benefited from a more minor security breach and subsequent FTC imposition of the kind of remedial measures that may have stopped this summer’s catastrophic data breach. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, they say, and ALM may learn that lesson at the cost of its business.