This Alert has been updated to include additional information about Vermont’s claims against Clearview.
Selling web users’ personal data is big business — with a projected worth of $400 billion by 2025. In industries as diverse as health insurance and automobile manufacturing, companies that collect and aggregate user data to sell it (often referred to as data brokers)1 are becoming a powerful force. Often, data brokers utilize web scraping to collect this data, frequently without the data subjects’ or owners’ knowledge or consent. And while certain states have enacted laws to give consumers more control over their data while bringing a modicum of transparency to this industry, the patchwork of applicable laws and regulations can be confusing. Companies doing business with data brokers need to understand the risks associated with web scraping, including the fact that state attorneys general (AGs) are talking about these issues. Below, we provide a primer on web scraping as well as an overview of the legal and regulatory challenges.
What Is Web Scraping?
Web scraping, in general, is the process of collecting data from websites by automated methods. It can occur either with permission from the company or person hosting the website or, as in most cases, without any knowledge or authorization from the website owner. Despite its ubiquity, this topic has received very little public attention from regulators in the last 10 years. In the 2014 Federal Trade Commission Report on Data Brokers,2 for example, web scraping is only mentioned in passing, despite the well-known use of web crawlers by data brokers at the time. Part of the reason for this lack of attention is the opaque nature of web scraping. Companies often create web crawlers and unleash them on public websites — no contract required, no permission requested. However, as regulators zero in on the privacy implications of collecting and disclosing user data, we predict web scraping will begin to draw their increasing attention and questions.
What Laws Could Potentially Regulate the Use of Scraped Data?
Regulatory enforcement actions related to web scraping are still relatively rare, which means there are few “bright line” rules. Most civil litigation on the issue has been brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. § 1030 — a federal anti-hacking law. To prevail, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant “intentionally accessed” a protected computer “without authorization” or otherwise exceeded his or her “authorized access.” The CFAA does not define the term “without authorization” though. And, as a result, the courts’ application of the CFAA to data scraping has been anything but uniform. Some courts have interpreted the CFAA to not prohibit accessing (or scraping) public information from websites, so long as it can be done without bypassing a “permission requirement” such as a password.3 Other courts have construed the CFAA more broadly, and have found that a person “exceeds authorized access” if he or she accesses information for an improper or unauthorized purpose.4 Thus, for publicly available information (i.e., information accessible without the need to enter log-in credentials), web scraping may not violate the CFAA — at least not right now in certain courts.
However, the CFAA is only one of many regulations capable of reaching both web scrapers and the companies from whom they mine data. As is often the case, when federal laws are nonexistent or limited in their reach, state unfair and deceptive trade practice (UDAP) laws can be applied by state AGs. In addition, certain states, including Vermont and California, have enacted laws specific to data brokers to supplement their UDAP statutes.5 Accordingly, state AGs may be better positioned than federal agencies or private litigants to regulate web scraping, since state UDAP laws could be interpreted to extend to both authorized and unauthorized scraping, in addition to conduct that may be covered by state data brokers laws or conduct otherwise lawful under the CFAA.
In Vermont, Clearview Is Contesting State AG’s Allegations
While Vermont is unique with its data broker law, other state AGs also have focused on data brokers and their practices in the past few years. For example, in 2018, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a joint investigation into the activities of political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica for allegedly scraping 50 million Facebook profiles. More recently, in a round of California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) regulations issued in 2020, the California Attorney General exempted certain data brokers from the statute’s notice requirements, in seeming recognition that businesses without a direct relationship with the consumer “cannot feasibly provide a notice ‘at or before the point of collection.’”6 Against this backdrop, these and other state AGs appear poised to use their UDAP statutes against both data brokers and companies that allow web scraping to occur without proper disclosure and consent.
Why Should Companies Whose Data Is Being Scraped Care?
There are several reasons why companies should be concerned that their data is being scraped, or could be. First, if a company’s data is being mined without authorization, then the company’s ability to control that data is slipping away. Second, and more importantly, most companies are under increasing pressure, and regulatory obligation, to know how and with whom they are sharing their customers’ data. Under recently enacted state privacy laws, consumers in certain states already, or will soon, have both the right to receive notice that their personal information is being collected and the ability to request that a company delete their personal information. This means companies need to understand whether the “scraped” data is protected as personal information under those state privacy laws and whether they have any ability, or legal obligation, to control access to that data. Of paramount importance, regardless of whether data is being scraped with or without authorization, businesses need to fully understand how their customers’ data is being used, should they be questioned by consumers or state AGs.
Even with Authorization, Scraping May Violate State Privacy Laws
The scraping of consumer information by a third party from a website with permission may violate state privacy laws already in place in California and to be implemented in Virginia or Colorado. In those cases, deletion requests from consumers would need to be relayed to and implemented by the third parties engaged in the scraping. In California, this arrangement may also qualify as a “sale” of the consumer’s personal information, which would trigger additional obligations under the CCPA (such as posting a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” link on a company’s website). Entities collecting information on Vermont and California residents may also have an obligation to register as “data brokers”7 with the Vermont or California AGs depending on what they are doing with the data and whether they have a “direct relationship” with the consumer. In Illinois, if the scraped data includes biometric information of consumers, that state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA)8 may also be implicated. Therefore, if companies are selling or sharing consumers’ personal information to web scrapers, due diligence at the outset (and regular monitoring of the web scraper) will be critical to ensure all parties are complying with applicable state privacy and data broker laws. The costs associated with managing these risks should be carefully weighed against any benefit derived from these partnerships.
Companies Need To Monitor for Scraping Without Authorization
If the web scraping is occurring without authorization, companies should consider taking steps to monitor and prevent this sort of activity — especially if the scraped information could include “personal information” as defined by state privacy laws. While “publicly available information” is often exempt from the reach of state privacy laws, this term is construed quite narrowly under most state laws. It does not necessarily mean anything publicly accessible on a website.9 If unauthorized web scraping may be occurring, companies should pay special attention to their privacy policies and other consumer-facing communications. In addition to potentially violating state privacy laws, any misrepresentation or omission in such statements creates an opportunity for state AGs to allege violations of state UDAP laws.
Targets Should Act Quickly to Minimize Risk
Data scraping was a much-discussed topic at the October 2021 National Association of Attorneys General Eastern Regional Meeting: “The Surveillance Economy: How Attorneys General Protect Privacy, Safety, and Equality in the Information Age,” with most speakers agreeing there needs to be more conversation and transparency around the information data brokers are collecting and how they are using it. As more states consider (and eventually enact) state privacy laws giving consumers increasing control over their data, and imposing corresponding obligations on businesses, we predict an uptick in enforcement.