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Businesses Across the Board Scramble to Comply With California Data-Privacy Law

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09/08/2019 | 01:14 pm

By Patience Haggin

For Gap Inc., January 2020 will bring a lot more than just after-Christmas sales.

Starting next year, all California residents will have the right to ask retailers, restaurants, airlines, banks and many other companies to provide them with any personal information they may have, including individual contact information, purchases and loyalty-program history. Consumers also can ask that businesses delete their information, or opt out of letting it be sold.

"You have to find a way to capture all that information and track it so you know what's happening with that information," said Dan Koslofsky, associate general counsel for privacy and data security at Gap. "And that's a pretty significant undertaking for most companies. Unless you've been in a regulated space like health care or financial services, you probably haven't done that previously."

The California Consumer Privacy Act was designed to make data-trafficking companies and tech giants such as Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Facebook Inc. more transparent about how they handle user data.

But the law, which passed last year and goes into effect Jan. 1, applies to any for-profit business that does business in California and collects data on California residents, as long as its annual revenue tops $25 million, or it holds personal information on at least 50,000 consumers, or it generates at least 50% of its annual revenue from selling user data. Even companies with no physical presence in California but a website that serves Californians are preparing to comply.

Some 500,000 U.S. businesses across all sorts of industries meet that criteria, according to the International Association of Privacy Professionals. They include companies as varied as Starbucks Corp. and Gap, health insurer Aetna Inc., financial-services firm Wells Fargo & Co., American Airlines Group Inc. and toy maker Mattel Inc. -- as well as hundreds of thousands of small and medium-size businesses.

Few companies keep all their customer data in one place, and now many are scrambling to build tools to match up individuals' data across disparate systems, such as directories, purchase histories and customer-service request logs. Companies also have to review their data-sharing arrangements with vendors and disclose them in their terms of service.

Gap had a certain head start because it already brought its European business into compliance with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect last year and has similar customer-data requirements. To prepare for these laws, Gap's privacy team interviewed about 200 employees across the company about how they use data.

Many other companies, though, are much further behind. The California law was passed last summer, but many companies delayed preparations during the lengthy amendment process. In a survey PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted last year, only 52% of respondents said they expected their company to be CCPA-compliant by January 2020.

"I'm concerned about people falsely accusing us of having information on them when indeed we don't," said Jeff Savage, president of the River Cats, Sacramento's minor league baseball team, which has more than 100,000 people in its email database. "How do I prove to Joe Smith that I don't have his info?"

Once the law becomes enforceable, which is expected by next summer, businesses that get a customer data request will have to comply within 45 days or risk pricey fines and possible civil litigation. The law threatens steep damages in the event of a data breach -- as high as $7,500 per affected person. Businesses also have to add a "do not sell my personal information" option to their home page where consumers can opt out.

Given the difficulty of maintaining a separate protocol for California's 39.6 million residents, many businesses are choosing to apply the changes they make for California to the rest of the country. Some anticipate that the California law will become a kind of de facto national standard, much like the state's standards for auto emissions.

Rena Mears, a principal with the law firm DLA Piper, said, "99% of the businesses that we're dealing with are choosing to make the law apply to all their U.S. customers."

The requirements' complexity has created an opportunity for some tech firms. Microsoft Corp. is preparing compliance software, as is LiveRamp Holdings Inc., as well as startups like SECURITI Inc., Text IQ Inc. and BigID Inc.

Gap said it doesn't sell data to brokers but does share customer mailing addresses with catalog companies. The retailer's privacy team has been scrutinizing those contracts and its disclosures to customers to make sure they comply with the California law.

One uncertainty is whether retail loyalty programs -- which reward consumers who let a company keep and sometimes sell their data -- could be considered a form of discrimination against shoppers who exercise their data rights. Another question is whether a customer who used a credit card in a store but never provided further data would be owed a personal data file. Mr. Koslofsky said Gap wouldn't store enough data on such a user to be able to identify them and would explain that in response to such a request.

Companies are gearing up for every conceivable scenario, including the possibility that identity thieves may pose as someone else to obtain their data.

If consumers in large numbers opt out of data sales, the greatest impact may be on data vendors and digital-advertising companies.

Los Angeles-based Factual Inc. provides location-tracking software for mobile apps, and then sells the users' location data to advertisers. If a user allows the app to use his or her location but opts out of having the data sold, Factual would still be obligated to provide the service but wouldn't be able to include that individual's data in the segments it sells to ad buyers, Factual's Chief Marketing Officer Brian Czarny said.

The California state legislature passed the hastily written law in a deal to block a more ambitious ballot initiative. That left the door open for both industry and privacy groups to spend the past year wrangling over amendments to the law, rather than preparing for it.

The bills for software and attorneys can creep up.

"Any Fortune 500 company is going to spend at least $1 million on CCPA compliance" in the law's first year, said Jay Cline, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers. "And we've seen budgets as high as $100 million."

Write to Patience Haggin at

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