Matthew McCord, MJSLT Staffer
This past week, Uber’s annus horribilis and the ever–increasing reminders of corporate cybersecurity’s persistent relevance reached singularity. Uber, once praised as a transformative savior of the economy by technology-minded businesses and government officials for its effective service delivery model and capitalization on an exponentially-expanding internet, has found itself impaled on the sword that spurred its meteoric rise. Uber recently disclosed that hackers were able to access the personal information of 57 million riders and drivers last year. It then paid hackers $100,000 to destroy the compromised data, and failed to inform its users or sector regulators of the breach at the time. These hackers apparently compromised a trove of personally identifiable information, including names, telephone numbers, email addresses, and driver’s licenses of users and drivers through a flaw in their company’s GitHub security.
Uber, a Delaware corporation, is required to present notice of a data breach in the “most expedient time possible and without unreasonable delay” to affected customers per Delaware statutes. Most other states have adopted similar legislation which affects companies doing business in those states, which could allow those regulators and customers to bring actions against the company. By allegedly failing to provide timely notification, Uber opened itself to the parade of announced investigations from regulators into the breach: the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner, for instance, has threatened fines following an inquiry, and U.S. state regulators are similarly considering investigations and regulatory action.
Though regulatory action is not a certainty, the possibility of legal action and the dangers of lost reputation are all too real. Anthem, a health insurer subject to far stricter federal regulation under HIPAA and its various amendments, lost $115 million to settlement of a class action suit over its infamous data breach. Short-term impacts on reputation rattle companies (especially those who respond less vigorously), with Target having seen its sales fall by almost 50% in 2013 Q4 after its data breach. The cost of correcting poor data security on a technical level also weighs on companies.
This latest breach underscores key problems facing businesses in the continuing era of exponential digital innovation. The first, most practical problem that companies must address is the seriousness with which companies approach information security governance. An increasing number of data sources and applications, and increasing complexity of systems and vectors, similarly increases the potential avenues to exposure for attack. One decade ago, most companies used at least somewhat isolated, internal systems to handle a comparatively small amount of data and operations. Now, risk assessments must reflect the sheer quantity of both internal and external devices touching networks, the innumerable ways services interact with one another (and thus expose each service and its data to possible breaches), and the increasing competence of organized actors in breaching digital defenses. Information security and information governance are no longer niches, relegated to one silo of a company, but necessarily permeate most every business area of an enterprise. Skimping on investment in adequate infrastructure far widens the regulatory and civil liability of even the most traditional companies for data breaches, as Uber very likely will find.
Paying off data hostage-takers and thieves is a particularly concerning practice, especially from a large corporation. This simply creates a perverse incentive for malignant actors to continue trying to siphon off and extort data from businesses and individuals alike. These actors have grown from operations of small, disorganized groups and individuals to organized criminal groups and rogue states allegedly seeking to circumvent sanctions to fund their regimes. Acquiescing to the demands of these actors invites the conga line of serious breaches to continue and intensify into the future.
Invoking a new, federal legislative scheme is a much-discussed and little-acted upon solution for disparate and uncoordinated regulation of business data practices. Though 18 U.S.C. § 1030 provides for criminal penalties for the bad actors, there is little federal regulation or legislation on the subject of liability or minimum standards for breached PII-handling companies generally. The federal government has left the bulk of this work to each state as it leaves much of business regulation. However, internet services are recognized as critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security under Presidential Policy Directive 21. Data breaches and other cyber attacks result in data and intellectual property theft costing the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually, with widespread disruption potentially disrupting government and critical private sector operations, like the provision of utilities, food, and essential services, turning cybersecurity into a definite critical national risk requiring a coordinated response. Careful crafting of legislation authorizing federal coordination of cybersecurity best practices and adequately punitive federal action for negligence of information governance systems, would incentivize the private and public sectors to take better care of sensitive information, reducing the substantial potential for serious attacks to compromise the nation’s infrastructure and the economic well-being of its citizens and industries.