Liability for Cyber Incidents

The rapid digitisation of every aspect of our lives has led to an ever-increasing risk of cyber incidents for all types of business. Significant financial losses, disruptions to operations, damage to reputation, and legal consequences can all result from such incidents. Comprehending the liability for cyber incidents is essential for organizations and businesses, particularly those in sectors that handle large quantities of sensitive personal data. 

Cyber Liability: The Legal Landscape

Cyber liability means the legal responsibility that businesses and organizations have for data breaches or cyber incidents that compromise the personal data they hold. In the USA, the legal framework governing cyber liability includes federal and state laws, industry regulations, and common law principles, making it a complex subject.

  1. Federal legislation:
    • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): HIPAA is applicable to every healthcare provider and their business associates. It requires them to put in place safeguards to protect sensitive personal health information. Violations typically result in significant fines and / or penalties.
    • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act: The Federal Trade Commission has expansive authority to act against companies which engage in unfair or deceptive practices, such as inadequate cybersecurity measures.
    • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA): The GLBA mandates financial institutions to protect client information. Failure to comply is punished by regulatory agencies.
  1. State regulations:
    • SHIELD Act, New York: Businesses are required to implement reasonable security measures to protect the personal information of the residents of New York, and face penalties for non-compliance.
    • California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA): This act grants residents of California rights over their own personal data and imposes obligations on businesses regarding data protection. Failure to comply with the act can result in significant fines and other legal repercussions.
    • Laws regarding data breach notification: Every state has enacted laws that require businesses to notify affected individuals following a data breach. Non-compliance with these laws can be punished by fines and other legal actions.
  1. Standards of the industry:
    • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS): This is applicable to those organizations that process credit card information, and requires them to respect strict security standards. Non-compliance can be punished by fines and the suspension or removal of the ability to process credit card payments.

Factors which influence a data handler’s cyber liability

The extent of a business’s liability for cyber incidents is influenced by several factors, including:

The type of incident: The nature and gravity of the cyber incident plays an important role in determining liability; e.g. a data breach which results in sensitive personal information being compromised might lead to greater liability in comparison with a minor system outage.

  1. Regulation compliance: Any business that fails to comply with federal and state regulations faces increased liability. Demonstration of strong compliance with the applicable laws and industry standards mitigates liability and potentially reduces penalties.
  1. Involvement with 3rd-parties: The implication of 3rd-party vendors or service providers may serve to complicate liability issues. Organizations are obliged to ensure that any 3rd-parties that they engage strictly adhere to cybersecurity practices. This is essential to avoid being held liable for cyber incidents caused by vendors.
  1. Contractual obligations: Contracts often include provisions related to data security and liability. Any failure to respect these contractual obligations exposes businesses to legal actions and increased liability.
  1. Negligence: It is often the role of a court to assess whether or not a business exercised reasonable care in protecting other parties’ personal data. In the event that a business is found to have been negligent in implementing adequate cybersecurity measures, it may face increased liability for any resulting incidents.

Mitigation of risks posed by cyber liability

In order to manage and mitigate the risks connected to cyber liability, organizations are advised to adopt a proactive and comprehensive approach to cybersecurity. As a minimum, the following best practices should be respected:

  1. Implementation of strong security measures: Advanced security technologies, e.g. firewalls, intrusion detection systems, encryption, and multi-factor authentication, should be deployed. Regular updates and patching of systems to address vulnerabilities is essential.
  1. Development and enforcement of security policies: The establishment of clear security policies and procedures, and more importantly, ensuring that all employees are aware of and adhere to them is a must. Businesses should conduct regular staff training sessions on cybersecurity best practices and their role in data protection.
  1. Regulatory Compliance: Remaining informed and up to date with new federal and state regulations is an essential part of compliance. Security practices must be reviewed regularly in order to align with regulatory requirements.
  1. Performance of punctual risk assessments: Risk assessments to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities need to be carried out on a regular basis. The findings serve to reinforce data security measures and fill any gaps in protection practices.
  1. Management of 3rd-party risks: It is paramount that all 3rd party service providers, vendors, and consultants are vetted, if not with outright suspicion, but with great care. They too must have robust cybersecurity practices in place. If they do not, it is inadvisable to work with them. Security requirements should be included in all such contracts and third-party compliance must be audited regularly.
  1. Development of a detailed incident response plan: The creation of a comprehensive incident response plan, outlining the steps to take in the event of a cyber incident, is a priority. Regular testing and updating of the plan should be performed.
  1. Audit and monitoring of security practices: Constant monitoring of security systems for signs of potential breaches and the carrying out of regular audits are necessary to guarantee compliance with security policies and regulatory requirements.
  1. Cyber Insurance: Financial investment in cyber insurance to provide protection against the costs associated with cyber incidents, including legal fees, notification costs, and potential fines, is very much worth it. Policy terms must be carefully studied in order to understand coverage and exclusions.

Cyber attacks and other incidents pose significant risks to businesses and organizations, both in terms of impact on operations and legal liability. Comprehension of the legal landscape and the factors which influence liability is essential in order to effectively manage these risks. The implementation of robust security measures, that ensure regulatory compliance, and the adoption of a proactive approach to risk management, allow businesses to mitigate their liability for cyber incidents and offer protection of their assets and reputation in an increasingly complex digital world.

Navigation of the complexities of cyber liability requires constant vigilance, investment in cybersecurity measures, and a commitment to industry best practices. The right strategies aid businesses to better defend their data against cyber threats and minimize the harmful consequences of cyber incidents.

Photo Credit: Creative_Bringer/ stock.adobe

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Eoin Campbell

Eoin P. Campbell is an honours law graduate (LL.B) from Queen's University Belfast and is a qualified lawyer. Eoin has moved from practicing law to lecturing. Eoin is currently lecturing in law at two universities in Lyon, France, including a master's degree course in cyberlaw. Eoin provides commentary with a legal perspective on cybersecurity and data privacy. He is an expert on data privacy laws.