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Lessons from the Equifax Breach

9.18.2017

As data breaches go, they don’t get much bigger than this. Late Thursday, credit reporting giant, Equifax, reported that it had suffered a cyber-incident. 143 million consumer records, including names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, addresses, and driver’s license numbers have been compromised. For reference, the entire United States population is 324 million.

The breach was reportedly detected on July 29th, although it wasn’t made public until September 7, after the underlying issue was remedied. Breaches are not uncommon – Equifax rival, Experian, suffered a much smaller one last year – but the magnitude of this one, combined with the loss of Social Security numbers, sets it apart. Though not the largest known breach – Yahoo!reportedly exposed 500 million accounts – this puts Equifax in an awkward position. After all, collecting and processing sensitive data is at the very heart of Equifax’s business.

Attorneys and experts will be opining on this episode for a while, but even at this early stage, three points stand out:

First, with security breaches becoming virtually inevitable and the commensurate potential for increasingly significant repercussions, Big Data may be evolving out of the purely private or corporate domain into a quasi-public enterprise, the classic example being utilities. Of course, one of the defining features of utility companies is a high level of regulation to protect consumers against the pricing power of a government-granted monopoly. In the Big Data arena, one would expect a high level of regulation for the purpose of protecting consumers from substandard cybersecurity measures.

Second, with Social Security numbers being compromised daily, their use as a universal identifier is increasingly ill-advised. As a result, multi-factor authentication (using a variety of identification technologies) may be moving from your company’s IT system to your everyday life. 

Third, when it comes to data, more is not always better. (Or, with apologies to Stan Lee, with great data comes great exposure.)

Therefore, with data, oftentimes less is more. While data storage space has become increasingly inexpensive, the potential costs of a breach mandate a careful evaluation of your actual storage needs. Simply put, pennies spent on data storage today can become dollars spent on breach remediation tomorrow. Consider reducing your risk exposure tomorrow by implementing appropriate data collection and retention policies today. Collect only what you need, use it only as necessary, and retain it only for so long as you actually need it.  

Saad Gul and Mike Slipsky, editors of NC Privacy Law Blog, are partners with Poyner Spruill LLP. They advise clients on a wide range of privacy, data security, and cyber liability issues, including risk management plans, regulatory compliance, cloud computing implications, and breach obligations. Saad (@NC_Cyberlaw) may be reached at 919.783.1170 or sgul@poynerspruill.com. Mike may be reached at 919.783.2851 or mslipsky@poynerspruill.com.

Physical Address: 301 Fayetteville Street, Suite 1900, Raleigh, NC 27601

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