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Blowing the Whistle on Data Breaches and Cybersecurity Flaws

Posted  June 14, 2019
By Chris McLamb

With increasing dependence on technology, cybersecurity has emerged as a critical issue for customers, investors, and government regulators. Data breaches and other cybersecurity incidents can have devastating effects. In 2018, the Council of Economic Advisers estimated that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy up to $109 billion dollars in 2016 alone.

Typically, the public only learns of such flaws and malicious actions months or even years after the fact. Companies may deliberately conceal known breaches or vulnerabilities from the public and their customers. Where companies seek to hide information, whistleblowers can play a critical role in exposing cybersecurity flaws and data breaches.

Under certain circumstances, a whistleblower can even receive an award for bringing timely information about computer hacks, data breaches, and software vulnerabilities to the government. However, there is no single agency that regulates cybersecurity. Instead, whistleblowers must navigate a complex web of overlapping laws to find the best place to bring their information. An experienced whistleblower attorney can provide critical guidance in that assessment.  Below we describe some of the key laws covering rewards for cybersecurity whistleblowers.

Blowing the Whistle on Cybersecurity Failures in Government Contracts

The federal government imposes cybersecurity requirements on government contractors. In 2016, the Department of Defense, General Services Administration, and NASA amended the Federal Acquisition Regulation to add a new subpart and contract clause on safeguarding information systems containing federal contract information. As a baseline, FAR now requires contractors and subcontractors to comply with basic cybersecurity controls established in National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-171.

Other federal contracts require more rigorous cybersecurity standards. The Department of Defense’s FAR supplement now requires certain defense contractors to report cyber incidents within 72 hours of their discovery. In addition, government contracts often impose further requirements for the protection of classified information or for compliance with agency-specific information-security requirements.

computer network with wires plugged into network

A contractor’s failure to comply with cybersecurity-related contract terms can give rise to liability under the federal False Claims Act, which empowers whistleblowers to report fraud and misconduct in government contracts and programs. The FCA allows whistleblowers to bring a lawsuit on the government’s behalf and share in the government’s recovery.

Successful whistleblower actions have been brought regarding failures by information technology companies to comply with government standards, and in July, 2019, the first-ever settlement involving violations of the cybersecurity standards became public, in a case involving a Constantine Cannon client.

    • In July, 2019, Cisco Systems, Inc. agreed to an $8.6 million settlement to resolve allegations it knowingly sold vulnerable video surveillance software to federal, state and local government agencies, exposing government systems to the risk of unauthorized access and the manipulation of vital information.
    • In April, 2019, IT supplier Fortinet agreed to pay more than $500,000 to resolve an FCA case brought by a whistleblower alleging that it routinely supplied the government with products made in China and then doctored the products’ labels to make it appear that they complied with the federal Trade Agreements Act. In announcing the settlement, the government emphasized that it was “committed to combatting procurement fraud and cyber risk within U.S. Department of Defense programs.”
    • In 2017, electronic health records (EHR) vendor eClinicalWorks agreed to pay $155 million to resolve claims that it misrepresented the capabilities of its software to fraudulently obtain certification required for government payment. While not involving security standards, EHR fraud cases demonstrate the government’s interest in pursuing vendors for misrepresenting software capabilities.
    • In 2015, NetCracker Technology Corp., which provided telecommunications network support to the Department of Defense, agreed to pay $11.4 million to settle claims that it used employees without security clearances to perform contract work that it knew required clearances.

SEC Cybersecurity Regulation Can Support a Claim to the SEC Whistleblower Program

The Securities and Exchange Commission has also become increasingly focused on cybersecurity, and whistleblowers that report cybersecurity incidents or vulnerabilities to the SEC could be entitled to a reward under the SEC Whistleblower Program. In 2018, the SEC published guidance on how public companies should disclose cybersecurity incidents and risks to investors. In the guidance, the SEC explained that companies face a wide range of cyber risks, from stolen access credentials and phishing, to malware and distributed denial-of-service attacks. Whatever their form, cyberattacks can significantly harm companies by destroying assets, interfering with critical systems, or disclosing sensitive intellectual property or consumer data.

Given these risks, the SEC advised public companies to promptly disclose all material cyber risks and incidents. The SEC identified several factors companies should consider when formulating disclosures:

    • The severity and frequency of prior incidents
    • The probability of occurrence and potential magnitude of future incidents
    • The adequacy and costs of preventative measures
    • The aspects of the company’s business and operations that give rise to material cybersecurity risks and the potential costs and consequences of such risks, including industry-specific risks and third-party-supplier and service-provider risks
    • The potential for reputational harm
    • Existing or pending laws and regulations relating to cybersecurity and their associated costs
    • Litigation, investigation, and remediation costs associated with cybersecurity incidents

In explaining these factors, the SEC cautioned companies to “avoid generic cybersecurity-related disclosure and provide specific information that is useful to investors.” The SEC also noted that directors, officers, and other corporate insiders can violate the antifraud provisions of the securities laws if they trade on material nonpublic information about a company’s cybersecurity risks and incidents.

Other entities regulated by the SEC are subject to industry-specific rules. For example, the SEC has issued specialized regulations and guidance for registered broker-dealers, investment companies, and investment advisers who must safeguard confidential investor records and information. Likewise, the SEC promulgated specific rules to enhance the technology infrastructure of entities directly supporting U.S. securities markets, such as stock and options exchanges and registered clearing agencies.

Regulated entities that violate these rules may be subject to SEC fines. For example:

The SEC whistleblower program encourages those with knowledge of violations of cybersecurity laws and regulations to share this information with the SEC. If the SEC collects monetary sanctions of more than $1 million, eligible whistleblowers can receive an award of between 10 percent and 30 percent of the amount collected by the government.

Whistleblower Rewards for Reporting Cybersecurity Flaws and Data Breaches

Navigating the complex laws regulating cybersecurity can be tricky. The whistleblower attorneys at Constantine Cannon can help you understand the law and determine the best way to blow the whistle. Contact Constantine Cannon today for a free confidential evaluation.

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Tagged in: Cybersecurity and Data Breaches, FCA Federal, Government Procurement Fraud, Importance of Whistleblowers, SEC Whistleblower Reward Program, Whistleblower Answers, Whistleblower Rewards,