Preserving Privacy in a Publicized World: Maintaining an Online Presence while Protecting Personal Data

By Brittany Robinett

We live in a world where phonebooks are obsolete, maps rest in photo frames instead of dashboards, and online reviews are given preference over word of mouth.  When locating a carpet cleaner, people use their iPhones.  If they can’t MapQuest Peking Palace, they will order takeout from MuLan’s instead.  When choosing a doctor’s office, they choose the location with the highest Healthgrades reviews rather than trusting their co-worker’s opinion.

To summarize, Internet presence is everything in today’s business culture.  Why?  Because a business’s online image serves as its face and reputation; the more publicized the presence, the greater the trust consumers are likely to have.  In what Forbes refers to as the “mobile app culture,” small business owners are keystrokes away from countless, affordable advertising and marketing opportunities.  Yet, surprisingly, small business owners fail to maximize their online business opportunities for two reasons:

  1. They do not utilize the Internet to their fullest extent.
  2. They utilize online services without protecting themselves from legal oversight.

In her article “How Small Business Owners are Wrecking Their Own Chances of Success,” Forbes contributor Erika Anderson notes that only half of small businesses maintain a website or social media presence.  Although less shocking, those that do maintain an online presence do not take the precautions necessary to protect themselves from data breaches.  Some business owners are reluctant to develop an online presence, particularly where a website would be used to gather personal information from customers.  Such reluctance, though understandable, could be alleviated if businesses protected themselves by obtaining legal counsel.

Small businesses pride themselves on providing a higher quality of care from an intimate distance.  In a globalized, computer-centric generation, such intimacy may be necessarily achieved through a readily accessible link on a screen.  While convenient, this exposes both clients and companies to risks of privacy and security breaches.  These breaches may subject businesses to liability.  With this in mind, can “high quality” truly be delivered when the risk of legal errors runs concurrently “high?”

Contrary to popular belief, hackers don’t simply target large business corporations.  In 2013, USA Today reported that over half of small businesses in the country admitted to experiencing privacy breaches.  Over half of those businesses fell victim to multiple attacks.  The constant media coverage surrounding the recent (and massive) Target credit card breach might lead one to associate such financial fiascos with larger businesses; however, credit card breach is problem that more commonly plagues small businesses.  Where they are comfortable with their internal privacy policies, smaller business owners may be more reluctant to invest in more expensive software, to conduct more far-reaching background checks, and to pay extensive amounts for liability insurance.  However, data breaches more frequently occur externally, and they require that additional privacy measures be taken.

Most states require all businesses to report data breaches to the affected individuals, although many businesses chose to ignore breaches and let them go unnoticed.  However, this can subject businesses to hefty fines and negative publicity, as well as threats of consumer lawsuits.

Clearly, it is important for businesses to abide by online privacy policies.  Unfortunately, businesses that lack legal counsel might not know what steps to take to effectively follow those policies, nor know what steps to take when following those policies isn’t enough to protect them.  For these reasons, hiring legal counsel prior to a breach is often a legally effective solution.  Retaining an attorney can also be more cost efficient than hiring after a breach has occurred.  Prior to sharing personal data with payment processors and other third parties, businesses may contract with those parties to hold them liable for breaches occurring while personal information is in their hands.  Having an attorney prepare and execute the contracts may prevent any loopholes from going unnoticed and effectively bind third parties to their errors.  This greatly prevents the risk of consumer lawsuits.  As well as eliminating risks of immediate financial damages, an attorney’s legal oversight additionally eliminates the risk of a damaged reputation arising from a litigated breach.  Further, since data breaches are not 100% unavoidable, having attorney ensures that the correct measures will be taken immediately – preventing both businesses and their reputations from harm.

Ultimately, people chose a business because they trust it.  In a culture that most values the information on the screen in front of them, make sure the business behind that screen can be trusted.

Bexley Law Firm, LLC
http://www.bexleylawfirm.com

About the Author:  Brittany Robinett is a second year law student at the Georgia State University College of Law.

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