[BreachExchange] Cyber Attack Could Spark Lawsuits but Not Against Microsoft

Audrey McNeil audrey at riskbasedsecurity.com
Tue May 16 20:45:00 EDT 2017


Businesses that failed to update Microsoft Windows-based computer systems
that were hit by a massive cyber attack over the weekend could be sued over
their lax cyber security, but Microsoft Corp itself enjoys strong
protection from lawsuits, legal experts said.

The WannaCry worm has affected more than 200,000 Windows computers around
the world since Friday, disrupting car factories, global shipper FedEx Corp
and Britain's National Health Service, among others. The hacking tool
spreads silently between computers, shutting them down by encrypting data
and then demanding a ransom of $300 to unlock them.

According to Microsoft, computers affected by the so-called "ransomware"
did not have security patches for various Windows versions installed or
were running Windows XP, which the company no longer supports.

"Using outdated versions of Windows that are no longer supported raises a
lot of questions," said Christopher Dore, a lawyer specializing in digital
privacy law at Edelson PC. "It would arguably be knowingly negligent to let
those systems stay in place.”

Businesses could face legal claims if they failed to deliver services
because of the attack, said Edward McAndrew, a data privacy lawyer at
Ballard Spahr. "There is this stream of liability that flows from the
ransomware attack," he said. "That's liability to individuals, consumers
and patients."

WannaCry exploits a vulnerability in older versions of Windows, including
Windows 7 and Windows XP. Microsoft issued a security update in March that
stops WannaCry and other malware in Windows 7. Over the weekend the company
took the unusual step of releasing a similar patch for Windows XP, which
the company announced in 2014 it would no longer support.

Dore said companies that faced disruptions because they did not run the
Microsoft update or because they were using older versions of Windows could
face lawsuits if they publicly touted their cyber security. His law firm
sued LinkedIn after a 2012 data breach, alleging individuals paid for
premium accounts because the company falsely stated it had top-quality
cyber security measures. LinkedIn settled for $1.25 million in 2014.

But Scott Vernick, a data security lawyer at Fox Rothschild that represents
companies, said he was skeptical that WannaCry would produce a flood of
consumer lawsuits. He noted there was no indication the cyber attack had
resulted in widespread disclosure of personal data.

"It isn’t clear that there has been a harm to consumers," he said.

Vernick said businesses that failed to update their software could face
scrutiny from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which has previously sued
companies for misrepresenting their data privacy measures.


Microsoft itself is unlikely to face legal trouble over the flaw in Windows
being exploited by WannaCry, according to legal experts.

When Microsoft sells software it does so through a licensing agreement that
states the company is not liable for any security breaches, said Michael
Scott, a professor at Southwestern Law School. Courts have consistently
upheld those agreements, he said.

Alex Abdo, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at
Columbia University, said Microsoft and other software companies have
strategically settled lawsuits that could lead to court rulings weakening
their licensing agreements.

"This area of law has been stunted in its growth," he said. "It is very
difficult to hold software manufacturers accountable for flaws in their

Also enjoying strong protection from liability over the cyber attack is the
U.S. National Security Agency, whose stolen hacking tool is believed to be
the basis for WannaCry. The NSA did not immediately return a request for

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor specializing in internet law at Harvard Law
School, said courts have frequently dismissed lawsuits against the agency
on the grounds they might result in the disclosure of top secret

On top of that, the NSA would likely be able to claim that it is shielded
from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which says that
the government cannot be sued over carrying out its official duties.

"I doubt there can be any liability that stems back to the NSA," Dore said.
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