According to a Ponemon Institute study*, data breaches occurring in the hands of third-party vendors amounted to 39 percent of breaches in 2010.  Whether it be cloud service providers, benefits brokers, medical billing services, debt collection companies, consultants, accountants, law firms, staffing services, shredding/data destruction services, cleaning service providers and other businesses, most companies utilize third party vendors to provide an array of services. Those services often involve letting the vendor access, store and/or process personal information, which creates additional risk and legal obligations for the company using the vendor, such as the service provider contract requirement in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts deadline. A number of states have passed laws requiring companies that put personal information in the hands of third party service providers must obtain the written agreement of the third party to safeguard this information. The Massachusetts data security regulations that went into effect March 1, 2010, gave businesses until March 1, 2012 to update contracts with service providers that were entered into no later than March 1, 2010. However, next month that grace period expires. Thus, beginning March 1, 2012, a contract to safeguard personal information must be in place with all service providers who handle personal information concerning a Massachusetts resident on behalf of the company.   

Other mandates. Requirements to ensure third party vendors are safeguarding personal information is not limited to Massachusetts. Examples include:

  • States such as California, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Texas have had for some time a contract requirement similar to the Massachusetts rule.
  • The privacy and security regulations under HIPAA have a more expansive requirement for “business associates” and “subcontractors.” Businesses subject to HIPAA are anxiously awaiting final regulations under HITECH which will be specifically addressing business associate agreement requirements, among other things.
  • The Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards require similar agreements.
  • Law firms in many states are subject to specific state ethical mandates to have written assurances from vendors handling client data (these mandates are not limited to personal information, but seem to apply to all client information). For example, lawyers in states such as ME, MO, NJ, NY, OR, VT, WI are required to make sure that contractors maintain appropriate safeguards through a “legally enforceable obligation.”   

What to do next? Vendor management should be part of an overall strategy to safeguard company and personal information. It is important to add that while personal information typically is the focus of this risk because of the breach reporting obligations across the country, confidential and proprietary company data is, of course, also at risk in the hands of vendors.

Companies should develop a list of all of their vendors and require all that have access to sensitive personal or company information to agree to amend the services agreement to include a requirement that the vendor have in place appropriate data privacy and security safeguards. Careful negotiations and drafting is critical to ensure legal compliance and protection/indemnity in the event of a data breach. In addition, some business might want to maintain a right to audit operations and require certain specific safeguards, depending on the volume and sensitivity of the information at issue. Companies also have developed comprehensive questionnaires and assessments for their vendors to complete to obtain a more complete picture of the vendors’ data security protocols.

Whatever the approach, companies should at a minimum obtain written assurances from their vendors concerning the safeguarding of personal information.  


*Ponemon Institute, LLC. 2010 Annual Study: U.S. Cost of a Data Breach, March 2011.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.