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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

FTC and 32 States Settle Charges with Computer Manufacturer Concerning Preinstalled Software that Allegedly Compromised Online Security

Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security State Attorney General Enforcement Settlement FTC Act

Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

On September 5, the FTC announced that, along with 32 state attorneys general, it had entered into a consent order with a global computer manufacturer to settle charges that it had preloaded advertising software on certain laptops that compromised consumers’ security protections. According to a complaint filed by the FTC, as well as complaints filed by the state attorneys general (see New Jersey Attorney General’s complaint), the manufacturer allegedly began selling the preloaded laptops beginning in August 2014. The software program—using a technique known as a “man-in-the-middle”—was able to access and collect consumers’ personal information that was transmitted over the internet, including login credentials, social security numbers, financial details, medical information, and email communications, without the consumers’ permission. The process entailed replacing the security certificates of visited encrypted websites with the software’s own certificates that could be easily compromised. The digital certificate substitution created multiple security vulnerabilities, which, among other issues, prevented consumers’ browsers from warning users if they visited “potentially spoofed or malicious websites with invalid digital certificates.” The FTC noted in its complaint that “[t]his practice violated basic encryption key management principles because attackers could exploit this vulnerability to issue fraudulent digital certificates that would be trusted by consumers' browsers.”

According to the complaints, the manufacturer allegedly (i) did not disclose to consumers prior to purchase that the problematic software had been installed; (iii) failed to warn consumers about the security vulnerability; and (iii) unfairly preinstalled software, which acted as a “man-in-the-middle” between consumers and visited websites—all of which are violations of state consumer protection laws and the Federal Trade Commission Act. The complaints further alleged that the manufacturer failed to provide consumers with an easy way to effectively opt out of the preinstalled software.

The terms of the FTC consent order stipulate the following: (i) the manufacturer is prohibited from making misleading representations about any software feature; (ii) consumers must affirmatively grant consent before this type of software may be installed, and the manufacturer must provide instructions for consumers to revoke consent or opt out; and (iii) a comprehensive software security program must be developed and implemented to address new and existing software security risks and will be subject to third-party biennial assessments for the next 20 years. The judgment reached with the state attorneys general also imposes a $3.5 million settlement to be divided between the states.

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