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Why Blockchain Matters to In-House Lawyers

Today, news reports, academic articles, and corporate reports are flush with mentions of “blockchain,” “Bitcoin,” and “distributed ledger technology.” At first glance, many readers see the discussion as hype, generating a great deal of actionless attention, curiosity, and investment opportunities. However, on another level, some of the conversation regards developments in technology that may specifically shape or impact a company’s contract or legal risk profile – even for those companies that don’t have or deal in Bitcoin.

Blockchain technology is expected to have a broad and sweeping impact across industries worldwide, with one commentator identifying a financial impact of over $176 billion in the next several years. It is envisioned that countless companies (whether suspecting or unsuspecting) will deploy or utilize the technology in their businesses. This may happen in the form of an internally developed or deployed technology or system, through dealings with governments or government agencies, or by way of transactions with technology vendors or service providers, among others.

At a very high and general level, blockchain is a recently developed distributed ledger (or database) technology that facilitates secure records of transactions over time by electronically distributing and maintaining tens, hundreds, or thousands of identical, immutable, highly secure digital copies of the transaction record. Each of these copies is distributed to and held by a different computer node or site participating in the ledger. Blockchain is one kind of distributed ledger technology, and there are many different platforms for blockchain. Bitcoin is a form of cryptocurrency whose foundation is based on one of the blockchain platforms. (Numerous detailed explanations of blockchain and distributed ledger technology are available online, including the video, Ever wonder how Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) actually work?, and a UK Government report on distributed ledger technology.)

Many sets of records that are maintained in an Excel spreadsheet, a company or vendor database, or government files, whether or not currently stored or maintained in the cloud, may be suitable for blockchain. A few examples include real estate purchase and sale transactions, shipping records, banking and financial transactions, inventory management, consumer auto-pay and auto-withdrawal transactions, product manufacturing, and customer subscription transactions.

Attorneys and contract professionals supporting companies’ encounters with blockchain technology should consider the following, among others:

  • Open Source Software. Currently, numerous distributed ledger technologies (including blockchain) are built using open source software. The Bitcoin program is distributed under the MIT License, aspects of Ethereum (another blockchain-based cryptocurrency) use the GNU General Public License, and OpenChain (another distributed ledger technology) is based on the Apache 2.0 license. Open source software licenses include many unique terms (and omit many standard commercial software licensing terms), and may, for example, dictate subsequent use and distribution of the software, as well as of company proprietary code related to the open source software.
  • New Software. Because distributed ledger technology like blockchain is new, in many cases the software underpinning the technology is not as well-tested and presents a notable possibility of serious errors and glitches. Consequently, traditional contractual recourses and remedies for software errors and bugs may not be wholly meaningful, when applied to blockchain, and typical software project deployment schedules and timelines may be difficult to adhere to.
  • Privacy. While one of the potential benefits of blockchain is stronger data security safeguards against loss, destruction, and unauthorized alteration of data and records, the nature of a distributed ledger is that the tens, hundreds, or thousands of ledger participants will have exact duplicates of the digital data and records. Even if the parties to a particular transaction do not consider the transaction record in the ledger to be confidential, it is possible that the underlying record data (especially if health, medical, or financial data) may be a material concern.
  • Technology Contracting. Blockchain is a technology, with its own open (as noted above) or proprietary platforms, software, and systems. Contracts for, or to use, blockchain technology, just as other company contracts for technology, are key vehicles to establish critical rights and obligations regarding representations and warranties, indemnities, limitations of liability, and intellectual property.
  • Bitcoin. Many companies will not typically have or deal in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. The legal and regulatory landscape applicable to cryptocurrency is nascent and exceptionally dynamic and varies across U.S. and non-U.S. jurisdictions (and is beyond the scope of this post). Even for companies that merely or only occasionally transact business in cryptocurrency (and don’t issue, exchange, or administer cryptocurrency), potential issues can include how cryptocurrencies are treated and taxed (different legal authorities consider them to be “currencies,” “commodities,” or “property”), whether corporate insurance provides coverage or protection for cryptocurrency transactions, and whether the use of cryptocurrency is even legal.

Blockchain is an algorithm-intensive, complex technology that may provide great benefits, efficiencies, and cost savings to its users. While this post does not speak to many of its features, including smart contracts, permissioned versus unpermissioned ledgers, and cryptocurrency mining, hopefully it provides a “bit” of useful information.

 

Your Emoji Use Just Formed a Contract

Or, did it?

As confirmed in a very recent Wall Street Journal article, the legal impacts and effects of using emojis and emoticons in business and workplace communications and dealings are growing. For attorneys, contract professionals, and business executives and teams discussing, negotiating, and communicating about technology, business, deals, and transactions, the use of emojis (pictographs) and emoticons (punctuation marks, letters, and numbers) should be a concern.

Depending on the circumstances, using an emoji or emoticon to respond to another party’s email or message may have the same effect as if precisely crafted words had been used. Unless the author of the email or message is careful, casually sending a 👍, :-), 👌, or ☺ in response to an email putting forth a proposal or offer to do business may be the same as stating, “I agree to your terms.” At a minimum, replying to a message with an emoji may convey contractual intent. Bottom line, before using emojis or emoticons in emails and other communications, it is critical to consider how they may be received or interpreted.

The use of emojis clearly is on the rise. In its November 2016 report, Emogi reported that 2.3 trillion messages incorporating an emoji would be sent in 2016 – and the report did not include the use of emojis in emails. In addition, the Unicode Consortium recently announced that 157 new emojis have been added in 2018, bringing the total number of standard emojis to 2,823. As more of the business world adopts technology to communicate, it becomes more important for business leaders, procurement and purchasing professionals, and others to be mindful of their use of emojis and emoticons in emails, texts, and other message formats. To those businesses and companies that have “careful communications” policies, has your policy been updated to address the use of emojis?

Aside from general contract concerns, the use of emojis has and will increasingly impact parties’ legal rights and obligations. This includes in the areas of labor and employment, promissory estoppel, jury instructions, and criminal cases. According to research by Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, for the set of reported cases that he was able to identify as mentioning “emoji” or “emoticon” over the 2004-2016 period, over 30% of the cases were from 2016, and nearly 50 were from 2015 and 2016.

And, if you needed another reason to be overly cautious when using emojis and emoticons in correspondence and communications, be aware that the true meaning attributed to any particular emoji may be vague, at best, or non-existent, at worst. Moreover, the form and appearance of the emoji you send may not be the same as the form and appearance seen by the recipient. In addition, different cultures, generations, and geographic regions interpret emojis differently. (The most confusing emoji? It’s 🤗.)

The reality is that emojis are easy to use and can be fun and communicative. They are, and will continue to be, used in emails, texts, and communications between and among business parties, their advisors, and others. Just be sure to 👀 before you 🏃.

RETURN TO SENDER: Aetna to Pay $17M to Settle Claims Related to Vendor Mailer Data Breach

Aetna has agreed to pay $17.2 million and to implement a “best practices” policy regarding sensitive policyholder data, in order to settle class action litigation brought against it arising from a mass mailing sent by one of its mailing vendors. As discussed in a blog post last year, federal class action litigation was brought against Aetna and its mailing vendor in 2017 based on the vendor’s use of glassine envelopes to communicate HIV medication information to Aetna insureds. The envelopes revealed that the named addressee was contacted about options for filling HIV medication prescriptions. The litigation alleged violations by Aetna and its vendor of several laws and legal duties related to security and privacy.

The contract lessons for customers and vendors that arise from the events in question, which were identified in the earlier post, remain the same. Do your contracts for non-IT and non-healthcare services fully consider the risk of privacy and security litigation? Do your contract’s indemnification and limitation of liability clauses contemplate the possibility of class action litigation? Before entering into a contract, have you considered whether the specific vendor services being provided to the particular customer in question implicate laws you hadn’t considered? And, Have you considered which specific aspects of vendor services may directly impact potential legal liability, and have you adequately identified and addressed them in the contract?

Importantly, the newly announced settlement, itself, provides three bonus lessons.

Published data breach cost statistics are helpful, to a point. 

In its 2017 Cost of Data Breach Study, Ponemon Institute reports that the average per capita cost of data breach in the U.S. for the period of the study was $225. It also reports that, for the same period, the average total organizational cost in the U.S. for a data breach was $7.35 million. Somewhat remarkable, as part of its settlement Aetna agreed to pay $17.2 million in connection with the breach in question – a figure that is about $10 million over the average reported by Ponemon Institute. But, Aetna’s payment is not out of the ballpark, as averages are averages, after all. Much more remarkable, however, is the per capita settlement amount. Aetna’s settlement figure represents a per capita amount of $1,272 – that number is more than five times the reported average. (For reference, that per capita cost would put Equifax’s settlement number for its recent breach at $185 billion dollars.) Bottom line, when considering or counseling clients as to the financial impacts of data breaches, the average cost figures for data breaches are as important as the qualification of the figures, themselves, as only averages (with any number of data security breaches costing more, or less, than the averages).

Data breach cost statistics often do not compare well with litigation settlement amounts. 

Yes, Aetna agreed to pay $17.2 million as part of the settlement, as compared to Ponemon Institute’s reported $7.35 million average U.S. data breach cost. While the $7.35 million figure includes forensics costs, customer churn, post data breach costs, and other direct and indirect expenses, the $17.2 million figure is not as comprehensive. It does not include, for example, Aetna’s legal fees incurred to defend and settle the class action litigation, nor does it include other pre-settlement costs and expenses incurred by Aetna. As efficient or helpful as it may be to compare published per capita or per breach data statistics with litigation settlement amounts, it’s also important to identify the full scope of costs and expenses that the published statistics include, as well as what costs and expenses are not included in the settlement amounts.

Data breach cost statistics and litigation settlement amounts don’t include non-monetary settlement obligations. 

Cost-per-record, cost-per-breach, and litigation settlement figures can be particularly meaningful and relatable, especially when considering or counseling clients as to the potential financial impacts of data security breaches. Notably, however, the material obligations of defendants settling data breach litigation matters typically are not limited to monetary payments. Aetna, for example, as part of its settlement, also agreed to develop and implement a “best practices” policy for use of certain personally identifiable information, to provide policy updates for five years, to provide policy training for certain Aetna personnel for five years, and to require outside litigation counsel to sign business associate agreements, among other commitments. These activities will require Aetna to incur additional costs and expenses, including costs and expenses for internal and, possibly, external resources in connection with the performance of these activities.

Supplementing the earlier post on this Aetna class action litigation and lessons learned, the recent Aetna settlement and the new lessons cited above provide an even fuller picture of data and security breach and related contract considerations. Not only is it invaluable to consider data privacy and security issues in contracts and the roles of vendors and service providers, it also is important to consider and counsel clients as to the full potential impacts of data breaches, including potential litigation settlement amounts, costs and expenses in addition to settlement amounts, and non-monetary settlement-related obligations.

Lessons Learned: Vendor Sued in Class Action Suit for Security Misses

You’re thinking that something about the title of this post sounds familiar, right? Information technology (IT) vendors and third party service providers have been in the spotlight for security breaches for some time (see, for example, vendor-based security lapses affecting Target, CVS, and Concentra, as just a few), and it doesn’t sound surprising that an IT vendor has been sued related to a security incident. After all, whether you’re an IT vendor or an IT customer, if you draft or negotiate contracts for a living, these situations are what you try to contract for, right?

Right…but…the recent federal class action suit filed in Pennsylvania against Aetna and its vendor surfaces several new privacy and security considerations for vendors and their customers. The vendor in question was not an IT vendor or service provider. Instead, the plaintiff’s allegations relate to Aetna’s use of a mailing vendor to send notification letters to Aetna insureds about ordering HIV medications by mail. According to the complaint, the vendor used envelopes with large transparent glassine windows – windows that did not hide the first several lines of the enclosed notification letters. The plaintiff asserts that anyone looking at any of the sealed envelopes could see the addressee’s name and mailing address – and that the addressee was being notified of options for filling HIV medications. As a result, the vendor and Aetna are alleged to have violated numerous laws and legal duties related to security and privacy.

For all vendors and service providers, but especially those that don’t focus primarily on privacy and security issues, the Aetna complaint is enlightening. To these vendors and service providers, and to their customers: Do your customer-vendor contracts and contract negotiations contemplate what Aetna and its mailing vendor may not have?

  • Do your contracts for non-IT and non-healthcare services fully consider the risk of privacy and security litigation? A noteworthy facet of the Aetna case is that the mailing vendor was sued for privacy and security violations that were not exclusively due to the customer’s acts or omissions. That is, while the contents of the mailer certainly were key, the vendor’s own conduct as a mailing services provider (not an IT or healthcare provider) was instrumental in the suit being filed against the vendor (and Aetna). Vendor services that previously didn’t, or ordinarily don’t, warrant privacy or security scrutiny, may, after all, need to be looked at in a new light.
  • Do your contract’s indemnification and limitation of liability clauses contemplate the possibility of class action litigation? Class action litigation creates a path for plaintiffs to bring litigation for claims that otherwise could not and would not be brought. Class action litigation against data custodians and owners for security breaches is the norm, and the possibility and expense of class action litigation is frequently on the minds of their attorneys and contract managers who negotiate contracts with privacy and security implications. But, for vendors and service providers providing arguably non-IT services to these customers – the idea of being subject to class action litigation is often not top-of-mind.
  • Before entering into a contract, have you considered whether the specific vendor services being provided to the particular customer in question implicate laws you hadn’t considered? Vendors that operate in the information technology space – and their customers – generally are well-aware of the myriad of privacy and security laws and issues that may impact the vendors’ business, including, as a very limited illustration, the EU General Data Protection Regulation, HIPAA, New York Cybersecurity Requirements, Vendors that aren’t “IT” vendors (and their customers), on the other hand, may not be. For example, the Aetna mailing vendor may not have contemplated that, as alleged by the Aetna plaintiff, the vendor’s provision of its services to Aetna would be subject to the state’s Confidentiality of HIV-Related Information Act and Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.
  • Have you considered which specific aspects of vendor services may directly impact potential legal liability, and have you adequately identified and addressed them in the contract? No, this is not a novel concept, but it nonetheless bears mention. A key fact to be discovered in the Aetna litigation is whether it was Aetna, or the vendor, that made the decision to use the large-window envelopes that, in effect, allegedly disclosed the sensitive and personally identifiable information. Given the current break-neck pace at which many Legal and Contract professionals must draft and negotiate contracts, however, unequivocally stating in a contract the details and descriptions of every single aspect of the services to be provided is often impractical (if not impossible). But, some contract details are still important.

Whether or not this class action suit is an outlier or is dismissed at some point, consider data security and other privacy and security issues in contracts and how vendor or service provider conduct may give rise to a security breach or security incident.