Oh Snap! Lessons From the Snapchat Settlement With the FTC

Posted by on May 8, 2014 in Advertising and Marketing, Data Security, Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just announced that Snapchat agreed to settle charges that it deceived consumers about how its popular mobile message app worked and what personal user data it collected.  (Read the FTC’s press release here). Part of Snapchat’s appeal was a feature enabling users to control how long a message could be seen by the recipient. After the designated time limit expires, the message is destroyed, much like the mission briefings in Mission Impossible. At least that’s what Snapchat told users. According to the FTC, Snapchat misled consumers because the app didn’t exactly work the way it said it did. The FTC’s complaint against Snapchat (read it here) included these allegations:

  • Recipients of a “snap” (a Snapchat message) could save the snap using tools outside of the app. Snapchat apparently stored video snaps in a location on the recipient’s mobile device outside of the app’s secure “sandbox.” This enabled recipients to find and save video snaps by connecting their mobile device to a computer and using simple file browsing tools. Another way to bypass the deletion feature was to use apps that connected to Snapchat’s API to download and save snaps.
  • Snapchat told users that if a message recipient took a snapshot of the snap, the sender would be notified. In fact, the screenshot detection mention could be bypassed.
  • Snapchat collected geolocation data of users when it said it would not.
  • Snapchat told users to enter their mobile number to find friends who also use the app, implying that the user’s mobile phone number was the only information it collected. Without the user’s knowledge, Snapchat also collected the names and phone numbers of all contacts in the address book on the user’s phone.

So what’s the significance of the settlement? Here are a few quick takeaways.

  • Descriptions of mobile apps in an app marketplace like iTunes App Store or Google Play are product descriptions that could be the basis for false advertising claims.
  • Including boilerplate language in an app description, terms of use, or privacy policy is a bad idea if you don’t know what it means or can’t verify its accuracy. Snapchat’s privacy policy told users that it “did not ask for, track, or access any location-specific information.” A lot of apps say that. The problem was that Snapchat integrated an analytics tracking service in the Android version of the app that did collect location information.
  • Take into account exploits and workarounds when drafting privacy policies and product descriptions. This includes software that uses the app’s API.
  • The FTC is getting more active in pursuing false advertising claims against mobile app makers. In December of last year, the FTC settled charges that the developer of the “Brightest Flashlight Free” app deceived consumers about how their geolocation information would be shared with advertising networks and other third parties. The FTC’s interest in suing companies that allow a data breach to occur is also a growing concern, especially after the New Jersey federal district court’s decision in FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., recognizing the FTC’s authority to prosecute cases where a company is alleged to have failed to maintain “reasonable and appropriate data security for consumers’ sensitive personal information.”
  • Information transmitted over the Internet is rarely, if ever, gone forever. Somehow, somewhere, electronic data can be retrieved.
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Hawaii Legislature 2014 — Summary of Proposed Computer Tech Legislation

Posted by on Jan 31, 2014 in Data Security, Employment and Labor, Privacy, Schools, Social Media, Trademark

It’s time to roundup the bills related to computer technology that the Hawai‘i legislature is considering in its 2014 regular session.  Click here for a chart summarizing the proposed legislation.  Here are the highlights:

Social Media and Internet Account Passwords:  Several bills to prohibit improper requests for access to personal social media accounts of employees and students were introduced in the 2013 session.  None of the them passed.  This year, HB2415 renews the effort to outlaw improper social media password requests.

Internet Sales Tax:  HB1651 would require online companies with arrangements with Hawaii merchants for referral of business  to collect use taxes on sales made in Hawaii.  This bill would affect online retailers like Amazon, who allows local merchants to sell their products through Amazon Marketplace.

Restrictive Covenants:  In an effort to encourage the development of technology business in Hawai‘i, a state with a relatively small geographic area, two bills (HB2617 and SB3126) would prohibit technology businesses from requiring employees to enter into noncompete agreements and restrictive covenants.  “Technology business” is defined as “a trade or business that relies on software development, information technology, or both.”

Cybersquatting: SB2958 would put the burden on a cybersquatter to prove that it did not register a domain name in bad faith or with intent to use it in an unlawful manner, provided that the person claiming cybersquatting can demonstrate the potential of immediate and irreparable harm through misuse of the domain name.

Cybersecurity Council: SB2474 would establish the Hawai‘i cybersecurity, economic, education, anfrastructure security council.

Mobile Devices: Three bills (HB1509HB1896, and SB2729) would make it a State offense to use a mobile electronic device while operating a motor vehicle.  Certain counties already have similar laws.

3D Printing: In response to the rising availability of 3D printers, HB1802 would make it a crime to create, possess, sell, trade, or give another person a firearm made with digital manufacturing technology.

Computer crimes: A series of bills criminalizes various kinds of computer activity, including unauthorized access to a computer or network and damage to a “critical infrastructure computer” (HB1640); theft of a computer (HB1644);  or personal electronic device for storing or retrieving personal information (HB2080); and revenge porn (SB2319).

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Cloudy With A Chance of Disaster: Avoiding the Security Risks of BYOC (Bring Your Own Cloud)

Posted by on Nov 18, 2013 in Data Security, Employment and Labor

Photo by Ian Lamont (CC BY 2.0) courtesy of Flickr

Photo by Ian Lamont (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

You’ve probably heard of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).  But do you know about BYOC?  It stands for Bring Your Own Cloud, and it’s more prevalent than you might think.

Cloud storage services like DropBox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive sport features that are attractive to an increasingly mobile workforce.  They provide gigabytes of storage for free.  Files in the cloud are accessible anywhere with an internet connection.  Changes to a file in a cloud account are synced across all devices with access to the account.  It’s not difficult to see why cloud services are gaining popularity among individuals and companies alike.

Therein lies the problem.  Because personal cloud accounts are so handy and easy to set up, an employee can create a security risk for a company in a matter of minutes.  An employee can essentially connect the organization to the cloud without the company’s knowledge via a private cloud account.  This enables the transfer of confidential company data to a location outside the company’s reach.

ComRent International, LLC v. Palatini, 2013 WL 5761319 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 24, 2013), involved such a scenario.  ComRent hired Clayton Taylor to serve as a vice president of product development.  Taylor primarily worked on matters related to Experium, a company that he co-founded and of which he was a minority owner.  Taylor set up a Google Drive account to store, access, and edit all of Experium’s intellectual property and confidential commercial information.  Only Taylor knew the username and password necessary for the account.  When ComRent hired an engineering firm to consult on options for the future of Experium, Taylor refused to grant the firm access to any of Experium’s intellectual property, believing that ComRent might appropriate the intellectual property for itself.  As a result, ComRent terminated Taylor and filed a lawsuit seeking access to the Google Drive account containing Experium’s corporate files.

Here are some tips for avoiding problems with unauthorized use of personal cloud storage accounts by employees.

Set a Policy: Remaining silent—and therefore ambiguous—about the organization’s stance on cloud storage can lead employees to believe they may use personal cloud accounts for work purposes without letting management know.  To eliminate such misconceptions, set a policy on whether or not the organization will use cloud storage.  If the decision is yes, then adopt measures to ensure responsible use of cloud storage.  If the decision is no, then clearly communicate to employees that storing work data in a personal cloud account is against company policy.

Maintain Control: If an organization decides to use cloud storage, it should retain control over the information necessary to access the cloud storage account (e.g., login credentials).  It is advisable to create an account under the organization’s name for official work purposes instead of allowing employees to use their personal accounts.

Restrict Unauthorized Cloud Services: Consider restricting access to private cloud storage sites from any device that can also access company data, including mobile devices, through the use of blacklists, proxies, and other network security measures.  This will prevent the transfer of work files to a private cloud account.  Organizations with BYOD programs might find it challenging to eliminate all access to private cloud services, but it is worthwhile consulting with the IT department about the feasibility of implementing such restrictions.

Retain Ownership: Make it clear that company information remains property of the company regardless of where it is stored.  It’s also a good idea to have employees sign written non-disclosure agreements.

Stay safe in the cloud!

 

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Bring It: Preparing for the BYOD Movement at Your Workplace

Posted by on Aug 20, 2013 in Data Security, Employment and Labor

No, it’s not an acronym advising you to come to dinner with your favorite vintage of pinot noir.  BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device, a movement that’s changing the landscape of information technology at workplaces across the globe.  In the “old days,” companies issued electronic equipment to employees for work use.  Today, employees want to use the latest electronics of their own choice for both work and play.  Surveys consistently show that companies are giving in to such requests, citing the benefits of increased productivity and morale, as well as cost savings from not having to buy the equipment themselves.  However, BYOD programs also create legal risks for companies, including:

  • Violation of labor laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act due to the ability of workers to rack up overtime by doing work on personal devices practically anywhere and at any time, whether or not such overtime is authorized by management
  • Violation of laws prohibiting disclosure of the private information of customers, clients, or patients, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act
  • Inadvertent disclosure of proprietary company information, which jeopardizes their confidentiality, and as a result, their status as protected trade secrets
  • Complicating the e-discovery process, because electronic data that fall within the scope of a discovery request may reside on devices besides those under the direct control of the company

In light of these risks, the knee-jerk response of management might be to forbid BYOD entirely, but that is not necessarily the best approach.  BYOD is more prevalent than one might think.  A form of BYOD is in play whenever someone stores work data on a personal cloud storage account, uses a personal laptop to draft a memo for work, or forwards work-related word processing files to a private email account for easy access from home.  A company need not officially adopt a BYOD program to have one, which is all the reason why management should be proactive about putting BYOD policies in place.

Learn about the specific risks that a BYOD program creates for your company.  Develop guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable use of personal devices for work-related purposes.  Notify employees of the policies in writing and provide training.  Don’t wait until it’s too late!

Want more tips on BYOD?  Come to the Advanced Employment Issues Symposium in Las Vegas from November 13-15, where I’ll be giving a presentation on “BYOD Challenges: When Employees Bring Their Own Devices to Work.”  Registration information is available at www.aeisonline.com.

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Privacy of Employee Data on Dual-Use Devices

Posted by on Jun 17, 2013 in Data Security, Employment and Labor, Privacy

Supervisor snoops into former employee’s personal Gmail account after she returns company-issued BlackberryLazette v. Kulmatycki, 2013 WL 2455937 (N.D. Ohio June 5, 2013)

Verizon BlackBerry Tour 9630The line between personal and business use of electronic devices is increasingly getting blurry, especially as more and more workers carry dual-use devices (devices designed for both work and personal use) like smartphones and tablets.   Businesses can benefit from the increases in productivity and morale resulting from this trend, but they also face new privacy concerns.  The recent case of Lazette v. Kulmatycki (N.D. Ohio June 5, 2013), highlights this risk.

Verizon issued a Blackberry smartphone to its employee, Sandi Lazette.  Lazette set up a personal Gmail account on the phone with Verizon’s permission.  Lazette returned the Blackberry to her supervisor when she stopped working for Verizon, understanding that the phone would be “recycled” for use by another Verizon employee.  Lazette thought she had deleted her personal Gmail account before returning the phone, but she had not.  Over the next eighteen months, Lazette’s supervisor read 48,000 emails in her Gmail account without her knowledge or authorization, and shared the contents of certain emails with others.

Lazette sued Verizon and her supervisor for claims including violation of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and invasion of privacy.  A federal court ruled that Lazette’s supervisor was potentially liable under the SCA for reading personal emails that Lazette had not previously opened, and that Verizon could be vicariously liable for the supervisor’s actions.  The court also allowed Lazette’s privacy claim to move forward.

LegalTXTS Lesson: Lazette teaches important lessons about protecting the privacy of personal employee data on work devices, including dual-use devices.

1.  Don’t read your employees’ personal messages—even if they are readily accessible.  Management should treat an employee’s personal account as private, even if restrictions to accessing the count are minimal or non-existent.  A person does not need to hack into an account or otherwise circumvent access restrictions to electronic communications to be liable under the SCA.  Lazette’s Gmail account was accessible to her supervisor for no reason other than the fact that Lazette failed to delete her account from her Blackberry.  Yet, the court ruled that Lazette’s negligence did not give her former employer implied consent to read her private emails.  The simple act of opening an unread message in an employee’s personal email account was enough to create liability under the SCA.

2.  Construe grants of access narrowly.  If an employee allows a supervisor access to his or her personal email account for work purposes, that is not a grant of access to everything in the account.  In Cheng v. Romo (D. Mass. Nov. 28, 2012), an employee of a medical imaging company gave his supervisor the password to his Yahoo! email account.  Although the employee did not attach conditions to sharing the password, his unstated objective was to share radiologic images that were emailed directly to him.  Years later, the supervisor logged into the account to read emails about the status of the company.  In the lawsuit that followed, the court allowed the employee’s SCA and invasion of privacy claims to go to trial.  Cheng teaches that management should err on the side of preserving privacy if given access to an employee’s private online account for a specific work purpose or no stated reason at all.

3.  Thoroughly purge personal data from company-issued electronic devices before reusing them.  Companies commonly reuse electronic devices (e.g., desktop and laptop computers, cell phones, PDAs, tablets) for work purposes after it has been returned or repaired.    Employees can leave behind personal data on devices such as saved passwords, emails, web history, internet cookies, and the like.  Set and enforce policies requiring the purging of all such data from electronic devices before the devices are issued to another employee.

4.  Clarify employee expectations of privacy upfront if implementing mobile device management (MDM) tools.  One measure for mitigating the risk of security breaches relating to dual-use mobile devices is the use of MDM tools controls such as the ability to “remotely wipe” a device should it get lost or compromised.  MDM measures could raise privacy concerns if they result in alteration or destruction of personal data on a dual-use device.  To mitigate such concerns, a company should devise policies clarifying upfront the expectations to privacy that employees should to have if they choose to use a dual-use device at work.

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