How Significant is the Wyndham Case to the US Cybersecurity Legal Landscape?


The security community has been abuzz this week with the US. District Court of New Jersey’s April 7 ruling in Federal Trade Commission v. Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, et al. (see Wyndham had asserted in a motion to dismiss that the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) did not have the authority to pursue enforcement actions against the hotelier related to data security. The District Court denied the motion and held that the FTC may in fact pursue claims related to data security under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce (see 15 U.S.C. 45(a)). While the significance of the holding is being debated in the legal community, this week’s decision highlights the Federal Government’s increasing emphasis on requiring certain baseline cybersecurity practices by the private sector.
The background facts of the case are fairly straightforward. The FTC brought suit against Wyndham Worldwide, Corp. in the wake of three separate security breaches that occurred between 2008 and 2011 and resulted in the theft of guests’ personal information (e.g., payment card account numbers, expiration dates, and security codes). The FTC alleges that after the initial two security incidents, Wyndham failed to implement reasonable and appropriate security measures which exposed consumers’ personal information to unauthorized access and resulted in consumer injury. Specifically, the FTC alleges that there were several problems with the Wyndham’s information security practices including wrongly configured software, weak passwords, and insecure computer servers.
So what does the Court’s holding mean for the private sector? Since, up until this case, the FTC’s data security actions have been settled out of court, this case marks the first time that the courts have ruled on the merits of the FTC’s authority related to data security actions. Fundamentally, the decision affirms that the FTC has the power to pursue enforcement actions for unreasonable cybersecurity practices under existing laws. The Court, however, cautioned that “this decision does not give the FTC a blank check to sustain a lawsuit against every business that has been hacked.” It is also important to note that the Court’s decision did not include a verdict on Wyndham’s liability in the matter (interested parties should continue to watch as the matter continues).
One significant question that remains unresolved is what constitutes “reasonable” security in this context. It seems possible that we may be starting to see an intersection with cases like this and wider US cybersecurity policy…does “reasonable” equate to adopting a risk mitigation strategy akin to the NIST Cybersecurity Framework? Or, does it mean something even more? Ultimately, this ruling on the FTC’s enforcement authority adds to the already dynamic cybersecurity legal landscape and should cause companies to take pause to examine whether their cybersecurity practices are defensible with regulators and in court.