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Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

Major Flaw with Proposed Senate Bill 3333 for Data Privacy

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Jul 18, 2012 10:14:00 AM

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Over the last few years we’ve seen attempts by the US Congress to pass new federal privacy notification laws. There are good reasons to do this as the current mix of state privacy notification laws are inconsistent and it is hard for organizations of any size to know if they are in compliance with the more than 45 state-level regulations. Businesses would appreciate some simplification and clarity, and one federal law would be preferable.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have seen proposed legislation pass out of committee. But no consolidated legislation has passed Congress and been signed into law.

The latest attempt is proposed Senate Bill 3333.

This legislation is similar to many state laws in how it defines Personally Identifiable Information (PII), how it proposes that breach notification take place, and how it levies fines for the loss of sensitive information. Like HIPAA legislation, it charters the Federal Trade Commission with enforcement responsibility.

Unfortunately, it won’t have much of an impact on reducing data breaches and identity theft.

First, the definition of Personal Information is too narrow in today’s consumer and Internet world. To qualify as a breach, the proposed act requires that the data loss include a first and last name combined with a social security number, or financial account information. The breach that happened to LinkedIn would not even qualify under this definition. And yet it was a serious security breach. The bad guys are really good at aggregating data like this, so the new law wouldn’t have helped. And it will give companies an excuse for hiding this type of loss.

When it comes to protecting sensitive data it leaves a gaping hole. Here is how the proposed legislation describes the approach to protecting sensitive data:

Personal information does not include information that is encrypted, redacted, or secured by any other method or technology that renders the data elements unusable.

Without a requirement to use encryption, AND clear guidance on protecting the keys used for encryption, we will continue to see significant data breaches taking place on a daily basis. Without this clear guidance, we will actually take a step backwards. In today’s world, security auditors and professionals already understand the need for good encryption key management systems and practices. They know that encryption keys stored with the sensitive data is equivalent to taping your house key to the front door when you leave in the morning. PCI data security auditors, SOX auditors, and almost all other security professionals now require that encryption keys be protected by HSMs designed for that purpose. But we don’t see mention of this in the legislation.

Rather than provide clarity around protecting sensitive data, this legislation will continue the confusion around how personal information should be protected, and even what constitutes a data breach. It will not provide the clarity and guidance that businesses hope for. It won’t stem the loss of sensitive information, and it won’t stop the terrible financial impacts of identity theft.

Let’s hope this bill gets strengthened before the final version is passed.


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Topics: Encryption, Data Privacy, Encryption Key Management

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