Monday, January 4, 2010

What's in a Word?

So I am doing the post holiday vacation catch up with my email last night and I found several emails in my inbox referencing a Boston Globe article published yesterday. The article is titled Data Breaches Affect Million State Residents .

To summarize, the article briefly reviews the amount of data loss containing Personal Identifiable Information (PII) of Massachusetts residents reported since MGL Chapter 93H was put into effect in October 2007. I was happy to see some general media coverage of the 2007 law and the newer 201 CMR 17.00 law which is scheduled to become effective in March 2010. I quickly became annoyed however.

What struck me was a quote in the article from Barbara Anthony, Undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

“In 60 percent of the cases, the breaches were due to criminal acts,’’ said Anthony. “Forty percent were negligence.’’

<disclaimer>I am not an attorney nor do I play one on TV!</disclaimer>

I live and work in Massachusetts so I am familiar with both these laws. I have to say I have a real problem with this statement. Lets first look up the definition of the word negligence. It is after all a legal term which therein lies my issue with her statement.

3. Law. the failure to exercise that degree of care that, in the circumstances, the law requires for the protection of other persons or those interests of other persons that may be injuriously affected by the want of such care.

4. Law. pertaining to or involving a civil action for compensation for damages filed by a person who claims to have suffered an injury or loss in an accident caused by another's negligence: a negligence suit; a large negligence award.

So if a criminal act was used to obtain data by way of an individual or company's neglect to adequately protect that data would that not be considered “negligence”? I would argue that most of the 807 cases reported by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were probably caused by some form of negligence. If an employee of a company storing such data, copies the data to his/her laptop against company policy, and that laptop is stolen from the front seat of his/her vehicle, then that is a criminal act caused by negligence. If a company's System Administrator forgets to apply a security patch to a critical system prior to leaving for two weeks of vacation, the server is compromised, and the data is stolen, I would also consider that a criminal act resulting from negligence.

My point is I would like to know how the Commonwealth is differentiating between a criminal act and negligence since the later can often lead to the former. I believe their logic and consequently their statistics are flawed. Moreover, neither law seems to outline such terminology.

So why is this important? I believe companies should be held legally liable. The term negligence implies that I as a consumer residing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should be able to hold a company that is storing my Personal Identifiable Information liable in criminal and civil court if they have been negligent in protecting my data. Is that not the purpose of Law? Until then, I do not believe laws and regulations will have any substantial positive effect. They are just security theater.

On a related note, I found this great post on blog waiting in my RSS reader last night;  Why Data Breaches Don't Get Reported.

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