As discussed in a previous DBR on Data post, the U.S. Department of Education (“ED”) in recent years has repeatedly emphasized the importance of higher education institutions taking all appropriate measures to secure and protect their data systems and data from breaches and inadvertent disclosures. The threats to educational institutions’ data are real, recurring and well-documented. The University of Maryland reported in 2014 that a computer system breach compromised more than 300,000 personal records for faculty, staff and students. A private cybersecurity firm reported that Chinese hackers targeted research databases at more than two dozen universities in the 2017-18 timeframe. In 2019, applicants to Grinnell College, Hamilton College and Oberlin College discovered their admissions files were subject to a ransomware attack. These instances are just a few recent examples of significant data breaches in the education sector.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Opinion finding that Cambridge Analytica engaged in deceptive practices to harvest personal information closes another chapter in the Commission’s actions against Cambridge Analytica and its former chief executive and app developer. The opinion is noteworthy for two reasons. First, the procedural posture of this matter is unique because Cambridge Analytica failed to appear or to answer the complaint. This allowed the Commission under its Rules of Practice to find the facts to be as alleged in the complaint and to enter a final decision. Second, the Commission’s opinion holds that a false express privacy claim is material and thus violates Section 5 of the FTC Act.