The SEC Has Issued New Guidance On Cybersecurity Disclosures

On February 20, 2018, the SEC issued new interpretative guidance on public company disclosures related to cybersecurity risks and incidents. In addition to addressing public company disclosures, the new guidance reminds companies of the importance of maintaining disclosure controls and procedures to address cyber-risks and incidents and reminds insiders that trading while having non-public information related to cyber-matters could violate federal insider-trading laws.

The prior SEC guidance on the topic was dated, having been issued on October 13, 2011. For a review of this prior guidance. The new guidance is not dramatically different from the 2011 guidance.

Introduction

The topic of cybersecurity has been in the forefront in recent years, with the SEC issuing a series of statements and creating two new cyber-based enforcement initiatives targeting the protection of retail investors, including protection related to distributed ledger technology (DLT) and initial coin or cryptocurrency offerings (ICO’s). Moreover, the SEC has asked the House Committee on Financial Services to increase the SEC’s budget by $100 million to enhance the SEC’s cybersecurity efforts. See my two-part blog series, including a summary of the recent speeches and initiatives.

The SEC incorporates cybersecurity considerations in its disclosure and supervisory programs, including in the context of its review of public company disclosures, its oversight of critical market technology infrastructure, and its oversight of other regulated entities, including broker-dealers, investment advisors and investment companies. Considering rapidly changing technology and the proliferation of cybersecurity incidents affecting both private and public companies (including a hacking of the SEC’s own EDGAR system and a hacking of Equifax causing a loss of $5 billion in market cap upon disclosure), threats and risks, public companies have been anticipating a needed update on the SEC disclosure-related guidance.

SEC Commissioner Kara Stein’s statement on the new guidance is grim on the subject, pointing out that the risks and costs of cyberattacks have been growing and could result in devastating and long-lasting collateral affects. Commissioner Stein cites a Forbes article estimating that cyber-crime will cost businesses approximately $6 trillion per year on average through 2021 and an Accenture article citing a 62% increase in such costs over the last five years.

Commissioner Stein also discusses the inadequacy of the 2011 guidance in practice and her pessimism that the new guidance will properly fix the issue.  She notes that most disclosures are boilerplate and do not provide meaningful information to investors despite the large increase in the number and sophistication of, and damaged caused by, cyberattacks on public companies in recent years. Commissioner Stein includes a list of requirements that she would have liked to see in the new guidance, including, for example, a discussion of the value to investors of disclosing whether any member of a company’s board of directors has experience, education, expertise or familiarity with cybersecurity matters or risks.

I have read numerous media articles and blogs related to the disclosure of cyber-matters in SEC reports. One such blog was written by Kevin LaCroix and published in the D&O Diary. Mr. LaCroix’s blog points out that according to a September 19, 2016, Wall Street Journal article, cyber-attacks are occurring more frequently than ever but are rarely reported. The article cites a report that reviewed the filings of 9,000 public companies from 2010 to the present and found that only 95 of these companies had informed the SEC of a data breach.

As reported in a blog published by Debevoise and Plimpton, dated September 12, 2016, (thank you, thecorporatecounsel.net), a review of Fortune 100 cyber-reporting practices revealed that most disclosures are contained in the risk-factor section of regular periodic reports such as Forms 10-Q and 10-K, as opposed to interim disclosures in a Form 8-K. Moreover, only 20 incidents were reported at all in the period from January 2013 through the third quarter of 2015.

However, as Commissioner Stein notes, the SEC only has so much authority or power through guidance, as opposed to rulemaking.  Commissioner Stein strongly advocates for new rulemaking in this regard. I do not think in the current environment advocating for fewer rules, that rulemaking related to cybersecurity disclosurewill be made a priority. Moreover, I would not advocate for in-depth or robust further rules.  Disclosure is based on materiality, and a company has an ongoing obligation to disclose any material information, including that which is related to cybersecurity matters. I think the SEC can question principals-based specific disclosures, and whether they are robust enough, through review and comment on public company filings.  Certainly, the SEC staff, who reviews thousands of filings, has the knowledge of a lack of cybersecurity disclosure and can comment. In fact, if the SEC wrote a few standard cybersecurity-related disclosure comments and included them in a lot of comment letters, the marketplace would respond accordingly and beef up disclosure to avoid the comments.

Although I do not generally advocate for additional rules, Commissioner Stein makes one suggestion that I would support and that is adding the disclosure of cybersecurity event to the Form 8-K filing requirements. Although the new SEC guidance does not specifically require a Form 8-K, in light of the importance of these events, it seems it would be appropriate and the guidance itself requires “timely disclosure.”  However, without a specific requirement, a company could elect to disclose via a press release and/or the filing of a Form 8-K under Item 7.01 Regulation FD disclosure. When disclosing using a press release and Regulation FD item in a Form 8-K, a company may elect for the information to be “furnished, not filed.” Section 18 of the Exchange Act imposes liability for material misstatements or omissions contained in reports and other information filed with the SEC. However, reports and other information that are “furnished” to the SEC do not impose liability under Section 18. The antifraud provisions under Rule 10b-5 would still apply to the disclosure, but the stricter Section 18 liability would not.

New Guidance on Public Company Cybersecurity Disclosures

The new guidance begins with an introduction describing the importance of cybersecurity in today’s business world, driving the point home by comparing it to the importance of electricity. Cyber-incidents can take many forms, both intentional and unintentional, and commonly include the unauthorized access of information, including personal information related to customers’ accounts or credit information, data corruption, misappropriating assets or sensitive information or causing operational disruption. Attacks use increasingly complex methods, including malware, ransomware, phishing, structured query language injections and distributed denial-of-service attacks. A cyber-attack can be in the form of unauthorized access or a blocking of authorized access.

The purpose of a cyber-attack can vary as much as the methodology used, including for financial gain such as the theft of financial assets, intellectual property or sensitive personal information on the one hand, to a vengeful or terrorist motive through business disruption on the other hand. Perpetrators may be insiders and affiliates, or third parties including cybercriminals, competitors, nation-states and “hacktivists.”

When victim to a cyber-attack or incident, a company will have direct financial and indirect negative consequences, including but not limited to:

  • Remediation costs, including liability for stolen assets, costs of repairing system damage, and incentives or other costs associated with repairing customer and business relationships;
  • Increased cybersecurity protection costs to prevent both future attacks and the potential damage caused by same. These costs include organizational changes, employee training and engaging third-party experts and consultants;
  • Lost revenues from unauthorized use of proprietary information and lost customers;
  • Litigation;
  • Increased insurance premiums;
  • Damage to the company’s competitiveness, stock price and long-term shareholder value; and
  • Reputational damage.

Whereas the 2011 disclosure guidance was conservative in its tone, trying to strike a balance between satisfying the disclosure mandates of providing material information related to risks to the investing community with a company’s need to refrain from providing disclosure that could, in and of itself, provide a road map to the very breaches a company attempts to prevent, the new guidance is more blunt in the critical need to inform investors about material cybersecurity risks and incidents when they occur.

A company’s ability to timely and properly make any required disclosure of cybersecurity risks and incidents requires the company to implement and maintain disclosure controls and procedures that provide an appropriate method of discerning the impact that such matters may have on the company and its business, financial condition, and results of operations, as well as a protocol to determine the potential materiality of such risks and incidents.

Insider Trading

It is also important that public company officers, directors and other insiders respect the importance and materiality of cybersecurity risk and incident knowledge and not trade a company’s security when in possession of non-public information related to cybersecurity matters.  In that regard, companies should include cybersecurity matters in their insider trading policies and procedures. These insider trading policies should (i) guard against trading in the period between when a company learns of a cybersecurity incident and the time it is made public; and (ii) require the timely disclosure of such non-public information.

Guidance

Public companies have many disclosure requirements, including through periodic reports on Forms 10-K, 10-Q and 8-K, through Securities Act registration statements such as on Forms S-1 and S-3 and generally through the antifraud provisions of both the Exchange Act and Securities Act, which requires a company to disclose “such further material information, if any, as may be necessary to make the required statements, in light of the circumstances under which they are made, not misleading.” The SEC considers omitted information to be material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in making an investment decision or that disclosure of the omitted information would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the total mix of information available.

As with all disclosure requirements, the disclosure of cybersecurity risk and incidents requires a materiality analysis. Although there continues to be no specific disclosure requirement or rule under either Regulation S-K or S-X that addresses cybersecurity risks, attacks or other incidents, many of the disclosure rules encompass these disclosures indirectly, such as risk factors, internal control assessments, management discussion and analysis, legal proceedings, disclosure controls and procedures, corporate governance and financial statements. As mentioned, as with all other disclosure requirements, an obligation to disclose cybersecurity risks, attacks or other incidents may be triggered to make other required disclosures not misleading considering the circumstances.

A company has two levels of cybersecurity disclosure to consider. The first is its controls and procedures and corporate governance to both address cybersecurity matters themselves and to address the timely and thorough reporting of same. The second is the reporting of actual incidents.  In determining the materiality of a particular cybersecurity incident, a company should consider (i) the importance of any compromised information; (ii) the impact of an incident on company operations; (iii) the nature, extent and potential magnitude of the event; and (iv) the range of harm such incident can cause, including to reputation, financial performance, customer and vendor relationships, litigation or regulatory investigations.

Of course, the new guidance is also clear that a company would not need to disclose the depth of information that could, in and of itself, provide information necessary to breach cyber-defenses. A company would not need to disclose specific technical information about cybersecurity systems, related networks or devices or specific devices and networks that may be more susceptible to attack due to weaker systems.

The new guidance also reminds companies that they have a duty to correct prior disclosures that the company determines were untrue at the time material information was made or omitted, and to update disclosures that become inaccurate after the fact.

Like the prior guidance, the new guidance provides specific input into areas of disclosure.

Risk Factors

Obviously, where appropriate, cybersecurity risks need to be included in risk factor disclosures. The SEC guidance in this regard is very common-sense. Companies should evaluate their cybersecurity risks and take into account all available relevant information, including prior cyber-incidents and the severity and frequency of those incidents. Companies should consider the probability of an incident and the quantitative and qualitative magnitude of the risk, including potential costs and other consequences of an attack or other incident.  Consideration should be given to the potential impact of the misappropriation of assets or sensitive information, corruption of data or operational disruptions. A company should also consider the adequacy of preventative processes and plans in place should an attack occur.  Actual threatened attacks may be material and require disclosure.

As with all risk-factor disclosures, the company must adequately describe the nature of the material risks and how such risks affect the company. Likewise, generic risk factors that could apply to all companies should not be included. Risk factor disclosure may include:

  • Discussion of the company’s business operations that give rise to material cybersecurity risks and the potential costs and consequences, including industry specific risks and third-party and service-provider risks;
  • The costs associated with maintaining cybersecurity protections, including insurance coverage;
  • The probability of an occurrence and its potential magnitude;
  • Potential for reputational harm;
  • Description of past incidents, including their severity and frequency;
  • The adequacy of preventative actions taken to reduce cybersecurity risks and the associated costs, including any limits on the company’s ability to prevent or mitigate risks;
  • Existing and pending laws and regulations that may affect the companies cybersecurity requirements and the associated costs; and
  • Litigation, regulatory investigation and remediation costs associated with cybersecurity incidents.

Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A)

In MD&A a company should consider all the same factors that it would consider in its risk factors.  A company would need to include discussion of cybersecurity risks and incidents in its MD&A if the costs or other consequences associated with one or more known incidents or the risk of potential future incidents result in a material event, trend or uncertainty that is reasonably likely to have a material effect on the company’s results of operations, liquidity or financial condition, or could impact previously reported financial statements. The discussion should include any material realized or potential reduction in revenues, loss of intellectual property, remediation efforts, maintaining insurance, increase in cybersecurity protection costs, addressing harm to reputation and litigation and regulatory investigations.  Furthermore, even if an attack did not result in direct losses, such as in the case of a failed attempted attack, but does result in other consequences, such as a material increase in cybersecurity expenses, disclosure would be appropriate.

Business Description; Legal Proceedings

Disclosure of cyber-related matters may be required in a company’s business description where they affect a company’s products, services, relationships with customers and suppliers or competitive conditions. Likewise, material litigation would need to be included in the “legal proceedings” section of a periodic report or registration statement. The litigation disclosure should include any proceedings that relate to cybersecurity issues.

Financial Statements

Cyber-matters may need to be included in a company’s financial statements prior to, during and/or after an incident. Costs to prevent cyber-incidents are generally capitalized and included on the balance sheet as an asset. GAAP provides for specific recognition, measurement and classification treatment for the payment of incentives to customers or business relations, including after a cyber-attack.  Cyber-incidents can also result in direct losses or the necessity to account for loss contingencies, including those related to warranties, direct loss of revenue, providing customers with incentives, breach of contract, product recall and replacement, indemnification or remediation. Incidents can result in loss of, and therefore accounting impairment to, goodwill, intangible assets, trademarks, patents, capitalized software and even inventory.  Financial statement disclosure may also include expenses related to investigation, breach notification, remediation and litigation, including the costs of legal and other professional service providers.

Broad Risk Oversight

A company must disclose the extent of its board of directors’ role in the risk oversight of the company, such as how the board administers its oversight function and the effect this has on the board’s leadership structure. To the extent cybersecurity risks are material to a company’s business, this discussion should include the nature of the board’s role in overseeing the management of that risk. Information should also be included on how the board engages with management on cybersecurity risk management.

Controls and Procedures

The new guidance clearly provides that companies should adopt comprehensive policies and procedures related to cybersecurity and to assess their compliance regularly, including policy/procedure compliance related to the sufficiency of disclosure controls and procedures.  Procedures must address a company’s ability to record, process, summarize and report financial and other information in SEC filings.  Additionally, any deficiency in these controls and procedures should be reported.

The SEC reminds companies that their principal executive officer and principal financial officer must make individual certifications regarding the design and effectiveness of disclosure controls and procedures. These certifications should take into account cybersecurity-related controls and procedures.

Furthermore, as discussed above, a company should have proper policies and procedures preventing officers, directors and other insiders from trading on material nonpublic information related to cybersecurity risks and incidents.

Regulation FD and Selective Disclosure

Companies may have disclosure obligations under Regulation FD related to cybersecurity matters. Under Regulation FD, “when an issuer, or person acting on its behalf, discloses material nonpublic information to certain enumerated persons it must make public disclosure of that information.” The SEC reminds companies that these requirements also relate to cybersecurity matters and that, along with all the other disclosure requirements, policies and procedures should specifically address any disclosures of material non-public information related to cybersecurity.