Promising a company that you will safeguard its employees’ information and then failing to do it according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) standards likely will be viewed by the FTC as an unfair and deceptive business practice and trigger an enforcement action.

This was the case for Lookout Services, Inc., a company that maintains large amounts of sensitive information about the employees of its business customers, including Social Security numbers. According to an FTC announcement on May 3, 2011, Lookout claimed it would take reasonable measures to secure the consumer data it maintained, including Social Security numbers, but failed to do so.

Lookout markets a product that allows employers to comply with federal immigration laws. It stores information such as names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security Numbers. According to the FTC’s complaint, despite the company’s claims that its system kept data reasonably secure from unauthorized access, it did not in fact provide adequate security. (Note that an FTC complaint is not a finding or ruling that a respondent, such as Lookout , actually has violated the law.) For example, unauthorized access to sensitive employee information allegedly could be gained without the need to enter a username or password, simply by typing a relatively simple URL into a web browser, the complaint asserted. In addition, the complaint charged that Lookout failed to require strong user passwords, failed to require periodic changes of such passwords, and failed to provide adequate employee training. As a result of these and other failures, it was claimed, an employee of one of Lookout’s customers was able to access sensitive information maintained in the company’s database, including the Social Security numbers of about 37,000 consumers.

The settlement agreed to by Lookout to resolve these charges is comprehensive. Among other things, the settlement order requires Lookout (i) to conduct a risk assessment, (ii) to implement a comprehensive, written information security program, (iii) to cease making misrepresentations, including misleading claims about the privacy, confidentiality, or integrity of any personal information collected from or about consumers, (iv) to obtain independent third party security audits of the program every other year for 20 years, and (v) to make the settlement order available to its current and future employees having responsibilities relating to safeguarding customer data.

For companies that maintain personal information on other businesses’ employees in the course of providing services to those businesses, this development is an important reminder: Promises made to those businesses concerning the safeguarding of personal information must be supported by comprehensive policies and procedures. In addition to this kind of enforcement exposure, which also could arise at the state level from the states’ attorneys general, the employers that these businesses serve also could have causes of action for negligence and/or breach of contract. Increasingly, state laws require businesses to contractually obligate vendors to have appropriate safeguards to protect personal information provided to the vendor to perform its services. States having such laws include California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas.