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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Social media company to pay $150 million to settle FTC, DOJ data security probe

Federal Issues Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC DOJ Enforcement UDAP Deceptive FTC Act EU-US Privacy Shield Swiss-U.S. Privacy Shield Settlement

Federal Issues

On May 25, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against a global social media company for allegedly misusing users’ phone numbers and email addresses uploaded for security purposes to target users with ads. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, the defendant deceived users about the extent to which it maintained and protected the security and privacy of users’ nonpublic contact information. Specifically, from May 2013 to September 2019, the defendant asked users to provide either a phone number or an email address to improve account security. The defendant, however, allegedly failed to inform the more than 140 million users who provided phone numbers or email addresses that their information would also be used for targeted advertising. The FTC claimed the defendant used the collected information to allow advertisers to target specific ads to specific users by matching the phone numbers or email addresses with data they already had or obtained from data brokers. DOJ’s complaint alleged that the defendant’s conduct violated the FTC Act and the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield and Swiss-U.S. Privacy Shield agreements, which require participating countries to adhere to certain privacy principles in order to legally transfer data from EU countries and Switzerland. This conduct also allegedly violated a 2011 FTC consent order with the defendant stemming from claims that the defendant deceived users and put their privacy at risk by failing to safeguard their personal information. According to DOJ’s complaint, the 2011 order “specifically prohibits the company from making misrepresentations regarding the security of nonpublic consumer information.”

Under the terms of the proposed order, the defendant would be required to pay a $150 million civil penalty and implement robust compliance measures to improve its data privacy practices. According to the FTC and DOJ announcements, these measures would (i) “allow users to use other multi-factor authentication methods such as mobile authentication apps or security keys that do not require users to provide their telephone numbers”; (ii) require the defendant to “notify users that it misused phone numbers and email addresses collected for account security to also target ads to them and provide information about [its] privacy and security controls”; (iii) require the defendant to implement and maintain a comprehensive privacy and information security program, including conducting “a privacy review with a written report prior to implementing any new product or service that collects users’ private information,” regularly testing its data privacy safeguards, and obtaining regular independent assessments of its data privacy program; (iv) limit employee access to users’ personal data; and (v) require the defendant to notify the FTC should it experience a data breach, and provide reports after any data privacy incident affecting 250 or more users. Additionally, the defendant would be banned from profiting from deceptively collected data.