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Friday, March 23, 2018

Facebook Woes: Data Breach, Securities Fraud, or Something Else?

Matt Levine
Bloomberg.com
Originally posted March 21, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

But the result is always "securities fraud," whatever the nature of the underlying input. An undisclosed data breach is securities fraud, but an undisclosed sexual-harassment problem or chicken-mispricing conspiracy will get you to the same place. There is an important practical benefit to a legal regime that works like this: It makes it easy to punish bad behavior, at least by public companies, because every sort of bad behavior is also securities fraud. You don't have to prove that the underlying chicken-mispricing conspiracy was illegal, or that the data breach was due to bad security procedures. All you have to prove is that it happened, and it wasn't disclosed, and the stock went down when it was. The evaluation of the badness is in a sense outsourced to the market: We know that the behavior was illegal, not because there was a clear law against it, but because the stock went down. Securities law is an all-purpose tool for punishing corporate badness, a one-size-fits-all approach that makes all badness commensurable using the metric of stock price. It has a certain efficiency.

On the other hand it sometimes makes me a little uneasy that so much of our law ends up working this way. "In a world of dysfunctional government and pervasive financial capitalism," I once wrote, "more and more of our politics is contested in the form of securities regulation." And: "Our government's duty to its citizens is mediated by their ownership of our public companies." When you punish bad stuff because it is bad for shareholders, you are making a certain judgment about what sort of stuff is bad and who is entitled to be protected from it.

Anyway Facebook Inc. wants to make it very clear that it did not suffer a data breach. When a researcher got data about millions of Facebook users without those users' explicit permission, and when the researcher turned that data over to Cambridge Analytica for political targeting in violation of Facebook's terms, none of that was a data breach. Facebook wasn't hacked. What happened was somewhere between a contractual violation and ... you know ... just how Facebook works? There is some splitting of hairs over this, and you can understand why -- consider that SEC guidance about when companies have to disclose data breaches -- but in another sense it just doesn't matter. You don't need to know whether the thing was a "data breach" to know how bad it was. You can just look at the stock price. The stock went down...

The article is here.
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