Wyndham Decision Highlights FTC Role in Cybersecurity: Legal and Policy Considerations

Alden Abbott —  1 September 2015

On August 24, the Third Circuit issued its much anticipated decision in FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., holding that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has authority to challenge cybersecurity practices under its statutory “unfairness” authority.  This case brings into focus both legal questions regarding the scope of the FTC’s cybersecurity authority and policy questions regarding the manner in which that authority should be exercised.

1.     Wyndham: An Overview

Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” let me begin by quoting at length from Gus Hurwitz’s excellent summary of the relevant considerations in this case:

In 2012, the FTC sued Wyndham Worldwide, the parent company and franchisor of the Wyndham brand of hotels, arguing that its allegedly lax data security practices allowed hackers to repeatedly break into its franchiseescomputer systems. The FTC argued that these breaches resulted in harm to consumers totaling over $10 million in fraudulent activity. The FTC brought its case under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which declares “unfair and deceptive acts and practices” to be illegal. The FTCs basic arguments are that it was, first, deceptive for Wyndham – which had a privacy policy indicating how it handled customer data – to assure consumers that the company took industry-standard security measures to protect customer data; and second, independent of any affirmative assurances that customer data was safe, it was unfair for Wyndham to handle customer data in an insecure way.

This case arose in the broader context of the FTCs efforts to establish a general law of data security. Over the past two decades, the FTC has begun aggressively pursuing data security claims against companies that suffer data breaches. Almost all of these cases have settled out of court, subject to consent agreements with the FTC. The Commission points to these agreements, along with other public documents that it views as guidance, as creating a “common law of data security.” Responding to a request from the Third Circuit for supplemental briefing on this question, the FTC asserted in no uncertain terms its view that “the FTC has acted under its procedures to establish that unreasonable data security practices that harm consumers are indeed unfair within the meaning of Section 5.”

Shortly after the FTCs case was filed, Wyndham asked the District Court judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the FTC didnt have authority under Section 5 to take action against a firm that had suffered a criminal theft of its data. The judge denied this motion. But, recognizing the importance and uncertainty of part of the issue – the scope of the FTCs “unfairness” authority – she allowed Wyndham to immediately appeal that part of her decision. The Third Circuit agreed to hear the appeal, framing the question as whether the FTC has authority to regulate cybersecurity under its Section 5 “unfairness” authority, and, if so, whether the FTCs application of that authority satisfied Constitutional Due Process requirements. Oral arguments were heard last March, and the courts opinion was issued on Monday [August 24]. . . . 

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals rejects Wyndhams arguments that its data security practices cannot be unfair. As such, the case will be allowed to proceed to determine whether Wyndhams security practices were in fact “unfair” under Section 5. . . .

 Recall the setting in which this case arose: the FTC has spent more than a decade trying to create a general law of data security. The reason this case was – and still is – important is because Wyndham was challenging the FTCs general law of data security.

But the court, in the second part of its opinion, accepts Wyndhams arguments that the FTC has not developed such a law. This is central to the courts opinion, because different standards apply to interpretations of laws that courts have developed as opposed to those that agencies have developed. The court outlines these standards, explaining that “a higher standard of fair notice applies [in the context of agency rules] than in the typical civil statutory interpretation case because agencies engage in interpretation differently than courts.”

The court goes on to find that Wyndham had sufficient notice of the requirements of Section 5 under the standard that applies to judicial interpretations of statutes. And it expressly notes that, should the district court decide that the higher standard applies – that is, if the court agrees to apply the general law of data security that the FTC has tried to develop in recent years – the court will need to reevaluate whether the FTCs rules meet Constitutional muster. That review would be subject to the tougher standard applied to agency interpretations of statutes.

Stressing the Third Circuit’s statement that the FTC had failed to explain how it had “informed the public that it needs to look at [FTC] complaints and consent decrees for guidance[,]” Gus concludes that the Third Circuit’s opinion indicates that  the FTC “has lost its war to create a general law of data security” based merely on its prior actions.  According to Gus:

The takeaway, it seems, is that the FTC does have the power to take action against bad security practices, but if it wants to do so in a way that shapes industry norms and legal standards – if it wants to develop a general law of data security – a patchwork of consent decrees and informal statements is insufficient to the task. Rather, it must either pursue its cases to a decision on the merits or develop legally binding rules through . . . rulemaking procedures.

2.     Wyndham’s Implications for the Scope of the FTC’s Legal Authority

I highly respect Gus’s trenchant legal and policy analysis of Wyndham.  I believe, however, that it may somewhat understate the strength of the FTC’s legal position going forward.  The Third Circuit also explained (citations omitted):

Wyndham is only entitled to notice of the meaning of the statute and not to the agencys interpretation of the statute. . . . 

[Furthermore,] Wyndham is entitled to a relatively low level of statutory notice for several reasons. Subsection 45(a) [of the FTC Act, which states “unfair acts or practices” are illegal] does not implicate any constitutional rights here. . . .  It is a civil rather than criminal statute. . . .  And statutes regulating economic activity receive a “less strict” test because their “subject matter is often more narrow, and because businesses, which face economic demands to plan behavior carefully, can be expected to consult relevant legislation in advance of action.” . . . .  In this context, the relevant legal rule is not “so vague as to be ‘no rule or standard at all.’” . . . .  Subsection 45(n) [of the FTC Act, as a prerequisite to a finding of unfairness,] asks whether “the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.” While far from precise, this standard informs parties that the relevant inquiry here is a cost-benefit analysis, . . . that considers a number of relevant factors, including the probability and expected size of reasonably unavoidable harms to consumers given a certain level of cybersecurity and the costs to consumers that would arise from investment in stronger cybersecurity. We acknowledge there will be borderline cases where it is unclear if a particular companys conduct falls below the requisite legal threshold. But under a due process analysis a company is not entitled to such precision as would eliminate all close calls. . . .  Fair notice is satisfied here as long as the company can reasonably foresee that a court could construe its conduct as falling within the meaning of the statute. . . . 

[In addition, in 2007, the FTC issued a guidebook on business data security, which] could certainly have helped Wyndham determine in advance that its conduct might not survive the [§ 45(n)] cost-benefit analysis.  Before the [cybersecurity] attacks [on Wyndhams network], the FTC also filed complaints and entered into consent decrees in administrative cases raising unfairness claims based on inadequate corporate cybersecurity. . . .  That the FTC Commissioners – who must vote on whether to issue a complaint . . . – believe that alleged cybersecurity practices fail the cost-benefit analysis of § 45(n) certainly helps companies with similar practices apprehend the possibility that their cybersecurity could fail as well.  

In my view, a fair reading of this Third Circuit language is that:  (1) courts should read key provisions of the FTC Act to encompass cybersecurity practices that the FTC finds are not cost-beneficial; and (2) the FTC’s history of guidance and consent decrees regarding cybersecurity give sufficient notice to companies regarding the nature of cybersecurity plans that the FTC may challenge.   Based on that reading, I conclude that even if a court adopts a very exacting standard for reviewing the FTC’s interpretation of its own statute, the FTC is likely to succeed in future case-specific cybersecurity challenges, assuming that it builds a solid factual record that appears to meet cost-benefit analysis.  Whether other Circuits would agree with the Third Circuit’s analysis is, of course, open to debate (I myself suspect that they probably would).

3.     Sound Policy in Light of Wyndham

Apart from our slightly different “takes” on the legal implications of the Third Circuit’s Wyndham decision, I fully agree with Gus that, as a policy matter, the FTC’s “patchwork of consent decrees and informal statements is insufficient to the task” of building a general law of cybersecurity.  In a 2014 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum on the FTC and cybersecurity, I stated:

The FTCs regulation of business systems by decree threatens to stifle innovation by companies related to data security and to impose costs that will be passed on in part to consumers. Missing from the consent decree calculus is the question of whether the benefits in diminished data security breaches justify those costs—a question that should be at the heart of unfairness analysis. There are no indications that the FTC has even asked this question in fashioning data security consents, let alone made case-specific cost-benefit analyses. This is troubling.

Equally troubling is the that the FTC apparently expects businesses to divine from a large number of ad hoc, fact-specific consent decrees with varying provisions what they must do vis-à-vis data security to avoid possible FTC targeting. The uncertainty engendered by sole reliance on complicated consent decrees for guidance (in the absence of formal agency guidelines or litigated court decisions) imposes additional burdens on business planners. . . .

[D]ata security investigations that are not tailored to the size and capacity of the firm may impose competitive disadvantages on smaller rivals in industries in which data protection issues are paramount.

Moreover, it may be in the interest of very large firms to support costlier and more intrusive FTC data security initiatives, knowing that they can better afford the adoption of prohibitively costly data security protocols than their smaller competitors can. This is an example of a “raising rivalscosts” strategy, which reduces competition by crippling or eliminating rivals.

Given these and related concerns (including the failure of existing FTC reports to give appropriate guidance), I concluded, among other recommendations, that:

[T]he FTC should issue data security guidelines that clarify its enforcement policy regarding data security breaches pursuant to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Such guidelines should be framed solely as limiting principles that tie the FTC’s hands to avoid enforcement excesses. They should studiously avoid dictating to industry the data security principles that firms should adopt. . . .

[T]he FTC should [also] employ a strict cost-benefit analysis before pursuing any new regulatory initiatives, legislative recommendations, or investigations related to other areas of data protection, such as data brokerage or the uses of big data.

In sum, the Third Circuit’s Wyndham decision, while interesting, in no way alters the fact that the FTC’s existing cybersecurity enforcement program is inadequate and unsound.  Whether through guidelines or formal FTC rules (which carry their own costs, including the risk of establishing inflexible standards that ignore future changes in business conditions and technology), the FTC should provide additional guidance to the private sector, rooted in sound cost-benefit analysis.  The FTC should also be ever mindful of the costs it imposes on the economy (including potential burdens on business innovation) whenever it considers bringing enforcement actions in this area.

4.     Conclusion

The debate over the appropriate scope of federal regulation of business cybersecurity programs will continue to rage, as serious data breaches receive public attention and the FTC considers new initiatives.  Let us hope that, as we move forward, federal regulators will fully take into account costs as well as benefits – including, in particular, the risk that federal overregulation will undermine innovation, harm businesses, and weaken the economy.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.