Privacy is Back in the News

In last month’s issue, we mentioned (in “Gnu & Gnoteworthy”) the F.D.I.C. released a report entitled “Offshore Outsourcing of Data Services by Insured Institutions and Associated Consumer Privacy Risks”. Well, privacy issues are popping up all over the place again.

California Financial Privacy Act

The California Financial Privacy Act of 2003 became effective July 1st and requires banks to give customers the right to opt out of sharing information with bank affiliates with separately regulated lines of business and requires banks to get permission from customers to share information with outside companies. After the law was enacted, the American Bankers Association, Consumer Banking Association and Financial Services Roundtable filed suit claiming the Fair Credit Reporting Act—the federal law regulating sharing of information among affiliates—preempted state law and thus the part of the statute attempting to limit sharing of information among affiliates is invalid. Not so, said the Judge—to the surprise of bankers scrambling to comply—a recent notice from the California Department of Financial Institutions indicated it would begin enforcing the law immediately!

The Judge ruled that since the FCRA only applied to the sharing of “credit reports,” the California law covering a broader range of customer information was not preempted by federal law. Will the ruling be appealed? Will other states follow suit?

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Privacy Policies to be Required by California on All Commercial Websites

California has done it again! The nation’s toughest anti-spam law, the first database security breach notification law, and now the first state to require commercial website owners and online service providers to adopt and communicate privacy policies, ensure policies satisfy certain minimum standards, and pay penalties if they fail to conform.

California’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003 becomes effective July 1, 2004, and applies to commercial website owners and online services that collect and maintain “personally identifiable information” from a “consumer” residing in California. This will likely apply to all businesses selling goods or services online in the United States. To comply, among other things, the privacy policy must identify the categories of information collected; third parties who have access; how a consumer may review and correct information; and how consumers will be notified of changes in the policy. The statute also requires website owners to “conspicuously post” a privacy policy on their websites. A website owner can satisfy the requirement by posting the policy on its home page or by providing a hyperlink from that page to the policy. The link must include the word “privacy” and meet certain case, type size, font, or contrasting colors or marking requirements that call attention to the link and the policy. Online service providers must use “reasonably accessible means” to make its policy available.

This act is a good reason for businesses to review existing privacy, website and online practices. Re-examine privacy promises and consider liability waivers. If you have not yet adopted a privacy policy, now is the time to do so!