The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was the biggest story of 2018 in the field of global privacy and data protection. The GDPR became enforceable in European Union Member States on May 25, 2018, significantly expanding the territorial reach of EU data protection law and introducing numerous changes that affected the way organizations globally process the personal data of their EU customers, employees and suppliers. These important changes required action by companies and institutions around the world. In almost six months after the GDPR’s effective date, organizations are still working on compliance—and will be for years to come.

Critical provisions

The GDPR applies to organizations inside and outside the EU. Organizations “established” inside the EU, essentially meaning a business or unit located in the EU, must comply with the GDPR if they process personal data in the context of that establishment. The GDPR also applies to organizations outside the EU that offer goods or services to, or monitor the behavior of, individuals located in the EU.

The GDPR uses other terms not familiar to US businesses but which need to be understood. Both “data controllers” and “data processors” have obligations under the GDPR, and data subjects can bring actions directly against either or both of those parties. A data controller is an organization that has control over and determines how and why to process data. A data controller is often, but not always, the organization that has the direct relationship with the data subject (the individual about whom the data pertains). A data processor is an organization that processes personal data on behalf of a data controller, typically a vendor or service provider. The GDPR defines “processing” to mean any operation or set of operations performed on personal data or on sets of personal data, whether or not by automated means (e.g., collection, recording, storage, alteration, use, disclosure and structuring).

The GDPR also broadly defines “personal data” as any information directly or indirectly relating to an identified or identifiable natural person, such as a name, identification number, location data, an online identifier, or one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person. Organizations in the US are used to a narrower definition of personal data, which typically includes information that, if breached, would put an individual at risk of identity theft or fraud and require notice (e.g., Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and financial account, credit and debit card numbers).
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On September 29, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) formally announced a December 12th workshop on informational injury—the injury a consumer suffers when information about them is misused. The workshop will address questions such as, how to characterize and measure such injury and what factors businesses and consumers should consider the benefits and risks of collecting, using and providing personal information so as to gain further perspective for how the FTC should apply its legal framework for privacy and security enforcement under 15 USC § 45 (Section 5). In her September 19th remarks to the Federal Communications Bar Association, Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, the Acting Chairman of the FTC, metaphorically characterized the workshop’s purpose as providing the next brushstrokes on the unfinished enforcement landscape the FTC is painting on its legal framework canvas. The full list of specific questions to be addressed may be accessed here.

Background. The FTC views itself as the primary US enforcer of data privacy and security, a role it recently assumed. While the FTC’s enforcement against practices causing informational injury through administrative proceedings goes back as far as 2002, its ability to pursue corporate liability for data security and privacy practices under its Section 5 “unfair or deceptive trade practices” jurisdiction was only ratified in 2015 by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corporation. The FTC has actively invoked its enforcement authority but, in doing so, has been selective in determining which consumer informational injuries to pursue by questioning the strength of evidence connecting problematic practices with the injury, examining the magnitude of the injury and inquiring as to whether the injury is imminent or has been realized.
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