Continuing the trend of significant enforcement of data privacy and security laws by federal and state agencies across the nation, the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General (AG) has settled a lawsuit against Boston-based Briar Group LLC for $110,000, according to a press release issued by that AG’s office on March 28, 2011.

See complaint and final judgment.

As we reported in prior posts, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently imposed a $4.3 million fine on a Maryland health care provider for violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), and days later entered into a $1 million settlement with a Massachusetts hospital that allegedly breached patient data. The recent enforcement activity of the HHS and the Massachusetts AG confirms that employers nationwide need to be as cognizant of the data privacy and security laws that apply to their operations as the government.

In its press release, the Massachusetts AG’s Office stated that the Briar Group, which owns and operates a number of bars and restaurants in the Boston area, “failed to take reasonable steps to protect its patrons’ personal information, thereby putting the payment card information of tens of thousands of consumers at risk.” The initial lawsuit filed by the AG’s Office stated that the Briar Group experienced a data breach in April 2009, in which hackers accessed customers’ credit and debit card information, but did not take steps to remove the software which allowed the hackers access to the company’s computer systems until December 2009, six months later. The lawsuit also outlined various other ways in which the company failed to properly safeguard its customers’ personal information, including:

  • Failing to change default usernames and passwords on point-of-sale computer systems;
  • Allowing multiple employees to share common usernames and passwords;
  • Failing to properly secure its remote access utilities and wireless network; and
  • Continuing to accept credit and debit card account information after knowing of the April 2009 data breach.

In addition to the monetary payment, the terms of the settlement require the company to “develop a security password management system and implement data security measures to comply with Payment Card Industry [PCI] Data Security Standards [and] state data security regulations, including implementation, maintenance, and adherence to a Written Information Security Program.”

This recent activity by the Massachusetts AG’s Office, along with HHS’s latest actions, should be motivation to employers to put in place the policies and procedures required by applicable data security and privacy laws. For those who have already taken steps toward conformity with the relevant laws, this should prompt a review of current policies and procedures to ensure the thoroughness of those policies and that they are being followed. For example, employers subject to HIPAA should have policies and procedures that address the management of protected health information of its constituents. Employers who employ Massachusetts residents or who maintain the personal information of Massachusetts residents are well advised to implement and follow a comprehensive WISP governing the storage, access, transmission and other forms of handling those individuals’ personal information.