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Two Years After Its Data Breach, Upromise Email Notice Leaves Customer Confused

William, an I've Been Mugged reader, received the below email message from Upromise.com:

"From: Upromise (member@your.upromise.com)
Subject: Important information regarding Personalized Offers
Date: March 10, 2012 12:14:23 AM EST
To: ***********@************

Dear William,
Our records show that you had the TurboSaver® toolbar installed with the optional Personalized Offers feature enabled at some point through January 21, 2010. Through that date, because of an issue with vendor-supplied software, the use of this feature resulted in the unintended collection and transmission of certain categories of your personal information to Upromise or our vendor. Depending on how a particular web page was configured, this could have included information you entered into forms such as usernames, passwords, search terms, credit card numbers or financial account numbers. Our members' privacy is extremely important to us, and we took immediate action when we learned of this issue in January 2010 by directing the software vendor to disable the Personalized Offers functionality. As a result of this change, the toolbar is not collecting or transmitting Personalized Offers data, even if your toolbar indicates that the feature is enabled.

As always, if you would like to uninstall the TurboSaver toolbar, simply access the toolbar menu by clicking the Upromise logo on the left hand side of the toolbar, select "Uninstall" and follow the prompts. If you have any questions, or need additional information, we welcome you to contact us at 1-800-877-6647 or email questions@upromise.com.

Sincerely,

The Upromise Customer Care Team
www.upromise.com"

William doesn't remember receiving a prior breach notice from Upromise, and says he is diligent about opening both email and postal mail from companies he does business with. William wants to know what is happening at Upromise, and why he received an email that looks like a breach notice two years after the data breach.

William does not appear to be the only concerned Upromise member. You can read posts by a couple customers in the Upromise community forum.

A review of the Upromise Facebook page and Upromise Insider blog did not find any posts during 2012 about a breach notice. I contacted Upromise and a representative, Deborah Hohler replied:

"When the matter came to our attention two years ago, we immediately addressed it and saw no evidence anyone’s data was misused. The protection of personal information is extremely important to us. This email communication was in connection with a proposed consent order from the FTC, and we worked with them on actual content and timing of the message."

At this point, a little history might help. In January 2010, PC Magazine reported about the Upromise breach involving the Upromise Toolbar:

"Privacy researcher and Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman has written a report on the practices of the Upromise Toolbar, called TurboSaver by the company. Upromise is a membership system through which you can earn money for college savings by buying items from certain vendors through Upromise. The toolbar facilitates this in your browser and tracks user behavior."

Another breach at a Sallie Mae company seems to have been the result of insider identity theft. In July 2011, WTHR Channel 13 in Indiana reported:

"The suspect is an employee at another Sallie Mae spin-off in Massachusetts - College Choice... In a letter sent to more than 300 parents, College Choice admitted an employee with its program manager, UPromise Investments, accessed names, social security numbers, birthdays and other contact information for seven months while on the job."

Also during July 2011, Upromise filed a breach notice (Adobe PDF) with the State of New Hampshire Department of Justice. The notice did not disclose how many customers were affected, but confirmed the WTHR news report and that letters were mailed to breach victims on June 23, 2011 -- about six months after the toolbar breach was discovered. I also checked Maryland, Vermont, and Wisconsin. None contained any Upromise breach notices, but Maryland hasn't yet uploaded breach notices received during 2011.

William lives in a state that does not post online the breach notices it receives.

The January 18, 2012 U.S. Federal Register (Adobe PDF) mentioned a proposed settlement agreement between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Upromise, which alleged that:

"... Upromise engaged in a number of practices that, taken together, failed to provide reasonable and appropriate security for the personal information it collected and maintained. Among other things, Upromise: (1) Transmitted sensitive information from secure web pages, such as financial account numbers and security codes, in clear readable text; (2) did not use readily available, low-cost measures to assess and address the risks to consumer information; (3) failed to ensure that employees responsible for the information collection program received adequate guidance and training; (4) failed to take adequate measures to ensure that its service provider employed reasonable and appropriate measures to protect consumer information."

The proposed settlement agreement includes six parts describing the actions Upromise must take to improve its data security and notices to its members (bold emphasis added):

"Part I of the proposed order requires Upromise to disclose to consumers—before the download or installation of software that records or transmits information about any activity occurring on a computer involving the computer’s interactions with Web sites, services, applications, or forms—the types of information collected and how the information will be used. The disclosure must be clear and prominent and separate from other notices. The company must also obtain consumers’ express affirmative consent before the consumer downloads, installs, or otherwise activates such software. In addition, the company must provide this clear and prominent notice, and obtain express affirmative consent, before enabling data collection through any previously installed TurboSaver Toolbar and before making any material change from stated practices about collection or sharing of personal information through the Toolbar.

Part II of the proposed order requires Upromise to provide notice to consumers who, prior to the issuance of the order, had the Personalized Offers feature enabled. The notice must inform consumers about the categories of personal information that were, or could have been, transmitted by the feature, and how to disable the Personalized Offers feature and uninstall the Toolbar. Part III of the proposed order requires the company to destroy data it collected during the years covered by the complaint unless otherwise directed by the Commission.

Part IV of the proposed order prohibits the company from making any misrepresentations about the extent to which it maintains and protects the security, privacy, confidentiality, or integrity of any information collected from or about consumers. Part V of the proposed complaint requires Upromise to maintain a comprehensive information security program that is reasonably designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of such information (whether in paper or electronic format) about consumers. The security program must contain administrative, technical, and physical safeguards appropriate to Upromise’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of its activities, and the sensitivity of the information collected from or about consumers and employees. Specifically, the proposed order requires Upromise to:
- Designate an employee or employees to coordinate and be accountable for the information security program;
- Identify material internal and external risks to the security, confidentiality, and integrity of personal information that could result in the unauthorized disclosure, misuse, loss, alteration, destruction, or other compromise of such information, and assess the sufficiency of any safeguards in place to control these risks;
- Design and implement reasonable safeguards to control the risks identified through risk assessment, and regularly test or monitor the effectiveness of the safeguards’ key controls, systems, and procedures; - Develop and use reasonable steps to select and retain service providers capable of appropriately safeguarding personal information they receive from Upromise or obtain on behalf of Upromise, and require service providers by contract to implement and maintain appropriate safeguards; and
- Evaluate and adjust its information security programs in light of the results of testing and monitoring, any material changes to operations or business arrangements, or any other circumstances that it knows or has reason to know may have a material impact on its information security program.

Part VI of the proposed order requires Upromise to obtain within the first one hundred eighty (180) days after service of the order, and on a biennial basis thereafter for a period of twenty (20) years, an assessment and report from a qualified, objective, independent third party professional, certifying, among other things, that: (1) It has in place a security program that provides protections that meet or exceed the protections required by the proposed order; and (2) its security program is operating with sufficient effectiveness to provide reasonable assurance that the security, confidentiality, and integrity of sensitive consumer, employee, and job applicant information has been protected."

Upromise is a rewards program where members save towards college by making everyday purchases with Upromise partners: brick-and-mortar and online stores, restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores, and similar retailers. Upromise members include parents, grandparents, and other family members saving for college for a child, grandchild, or family member. Upromise members can invest their savings in a high-yield savings account or tax-deferred 529 plan, and then use that to pay down student loan, or request a check to pay for college expenses.

What might all of this mean?

According to Hohler at Upromise, the email message William received was part of the above proposed settlement agreement with the FTC (probably Part 2). Given this, the email is in my opinion confusing and unnecessarily vague. It raises more questions than it answers.

A better email update would have reminded Upromise members that this email was follow-up to a prior breach notice, and that it was prompted in part by the settlement agreement with the FTC. The email update didn't mention the settlement agreement at all.

A better email update would also explain why Upromise left a toolbar installed in customers' web browsers that might display inaccurate messaging which might confuse users:

"As a result of this change, the toolbar is not collecting or transmitting Personalized Offers data, even if your toolbar indicates that the feature is enabled."

This seems to conflict with Upromise's reply that, "... we immediately addressed it..." about the toolbar data breach. A defective browser toolbar still operating two years after the breach would make anyone wonder.

A better email update would instruct users how to upgrade the defective toolbar. A better email update would have mentioned the proposed settlement agreement with the FTC, and then outlined everything Upromise is doing, or has already done, to comply.

The comprehensive and detailed scope of the proposed consent agreement suggests to me that there were more data security problems at Upromise than a toolbar breach. It seems to me that most of the six parts of the proposed settlement agreement are data security methods a company would implement anyway to protect sensitive assets and customer information.

Having received a breach notice via postal mail after IBM's 2007 breach, I can definitely tell you that a breach letter is not something you would easily forget nor misplace. So, I believe William 100% when he said that the above email is his first notice from Upromise about its 2010 data breach.

In the 4+ years I have written this blog, I have encountered situations where companies experiencing data breaches have created a website about its breach investigation. IBM created such a web site after its 2007 data breach. I searched for such a site at Urpomise and didn't find one. Perhaps its exists and is behind a secure log-in available only to customers. Then again, William would have mentioned it if it exists. A better email update would summarize its breach investigation(s) and explain the proposed consent agreement.

As it stands, users like William are unsure and left wondering exactly what is happening. Transparent communication promotes trust.

If you were affected by the Upromise breach, what has been your experience? What do you think of Upromise's post-breach response? What are your opinions of the proposed settlement agreement?

Comments

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mspy review

Upromise's installation sequence does not obtain users' permission for this detailed and intrusive tracking. Quite the contrary: Numerous Upromise screens discuss privacy, and they all fail to mention the detailed information Upromise actually transmits

Anonymous

It seems to me that most of the six parts of the proposed settlement agreement are data security methods a company would implement anyway to protect sensitive assets and customer information.

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