Secure Your Clients’ Data
Failure to protect electronic information may yield business and legal risks
By Jennifer Jackson Spencer, founding shareholder, Spencer Crain pllc
When it comes to personal
data regarding real estate, the
Internet has created a transparent world. From local government Web
sites that give property-tax information to
sites that compare home-sale prices and
values, records that previously only could
be secured in person at a local government
office are now available online.
There’s a vast difference, however, in
the transparency of this information and
the requirement to protect individuals’
personal identification and financial data.
Consumers are extremely sensitive to any
threat involving their personal or financial
information. As such, mortgage professionals and the financial institutions with
which they work must inspire absolute
trust. Being seen as cavalier or incompetent at protecting consumer privacy would
be a major blow in the marketplace — and
a major legal problem.
Statutes for electronic data storage
Personal data stored on computers are subject to a wide spectrum of security risks,
ranging from illegal activities — such as
hacking and data piracy — to careless ones,
such as losing a laptop computer that contains sensitive information.
Since the late 1990s, federal statutes
such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act,
the Right to Financial Privacy Act, the
Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act, and the Fair
and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, in
addition to state statutes, have created a
substantial body of regulations governing
the collection, use and security of personal
financial and medical records. They also
impose penalties on companies that do not
comply with their provisions.
Two interrelated statutes are of particular importance to mortgage professionals.
The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires all
the policy’s terms, with the opportunity to
opt out. The Electronic Signatures in Global
and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act allows banks to store records of loans, accounts and other transactions in electronic
format. ESIGN requires electronic-storage
systems to maintain these records’ accuracy, integrity and accessibility.
Financial businesses implementing an
electronic storage system should seek the
advice of legal and auditing counsel about
structuring their system for litigation discovery, audit support and bank-examiner
access. There should be adequate controls
on access and personal-data privacy to
maintain record-integrity and to comply
with the Bank Secrecy Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and similar statutes.
Other ways to determine whether a
bank or lender has an acceptable electronic
storage system are if it:
■ Is consistent with the bank’s general re-
cords management and retention policy;
■ Has adequate security to prevent cyber-
crime and other unauthorized access;
■ Provides for extensive backup and re-
covery (a special focus for bank examin-
■ Makes electronic records fully avail-
able for discovery during litigation, in
accordance with the revised Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure.
When it comes to protecting data privacy,
mortgage professionals who have their own
offices also should focus on any information that is secured or transmitted over the
Internet, particularly through Web site information and “contact us” pages.
If your company collects or receives
personal data from customers or prospects
via the Web, these elements should be part
of your privacy protection standards:
■ Notice of information practices: If a
company collects nonpersonally identifiable
information on its Web site, there should be
a clear and conspicuous notice on the site
about the collection policy. If personally
identifiable information is collected, the
notice should appear before such information is collected. These notices also should
disclose any consequences of an individual’s
refusal to provide information.
■ Choice on how personal information is
used: Once consumers are informed about
a Web site’s information collection policies,
they should be clearly informed about any
changes in these policies. These changes
should not be applied to previously collected information. Consumers also should
have the opportunity to opt out of the new
policies. Previously collected nonpersonally identifiable information should not be
linked to personally identifiable information without explicit consumer notice and
opt-out opportunity. There also should be a
clear and conspicuous notice of the opt-out
choice for nonpersonally identifiable information collected for profiling, generally by
advertisers. Sites with multiple advertisers
should have a single opt-out screen.
■ Access to collected information: Consumers should have reasonable access to
personally identifiable information and
other information any Web site advertiser
retains for profiling.
Jennifer Jackson Spencer, founding shareholder of Spencer Crain pllc in
Dallas, is an experienced trial lawyer highly regarded for her knowledge of
e-discovery issues. She counsels clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to
midsized public and privately held companies, in a broad spectrum of industries.
The firm is majority-owned by women and certified by the Women’s Business
Enterprise National Council. Contact Spencer at JSpencer@spencercrain.com,
(214) 290-0000 or via www.spencercrain.com.
“Consumers are extremely sensitive to any threat
involving their personal or financial information. As such,
mortgage professionals and the financial institutions
with which they work must inspire absolute trust.”
■ Security for collected information:
There should be reasonable policies to ensure that any collected personal information is protected from misuse, alteration,
destruction or improper access.
There has been a rising tide of lawsuits filed
on behalf of consumers and employees who
claim their personal data may have been
compromised. Highly publicized reports of
personal-records theft involving financial institutions, e-commerce businesses and government agencies pose increased litigation
risk over actual or potential identity theft
based on allegations that companies have
not fulfilled their data-security obligations.
Targets have included software companies, security-system vendors, records-man-agement services, management consultants,
employment agencies and even cleaning-service contractors. Banks, credit unions,
credit card companies and other businesses
may sue suppliers to recover the costs they
incur from a security problem. This area of
the law, where few precedents exist, likely
will become more active.
Facing the possibility of litigation,
many companies are pressuring their
information-technology (I.T.) vendors
and contractors to enforce stronger data-protection steps. I.T. contractors must
be prepared to document the security of
their internal processes and their employees. Sophisticated customers may require
adherence to the American Institute of
Certified Public Accountants’ Statement
on Auditing Standards (SAS) 70, which
defines data-security safeguards. In addition, I. T. service contracts increasingly
specify customer-notification procedures
in the event of a security breach, such as
the loss or theft of a laptop computer containing sensitive data.
■ ■ ■
The use of electronic and online technology to collect, process, archive and exchange sensitive personal information has
increased the speed and efficiency of real
estate and mortgage professionals. Simultaneously, however, it has increased the legal risks for compiling and using the data.
If you are unsure how secure the personal data you collect and store is, the time
to get information-security and legal guidance is now — not after a hacker strikes or
a laptop goes missing.
Illustration: Dennis Wunsch