United States: Calif. AG Must Clarify Consumer Privacy Act Right Of Access

The California Consumer Privacy Act, set to become effective in January 2020, will introduce a powerful new set of rights for California consumers — broad and inalienable rights to control the sharing, disposition, retention and use of their data. The central premise of the new law is that all consumers have an inalienable right, rooted in Article I, Section 1 of the California Constitution, to reclaim and/or demand deletion of personal information from businesses covered by the new law.

That these rights are "inalienable" means that they can't be forfeited by waiver, or even by sale. Central to this new set of rights is the right of access — the right of a consumer to demand that a business disclose select information about data collected from the consumer, including the "specific pieces" of personal information collected from that consumer, in the year preceding the request. This right, in the overall context of the new statute as written, raises serious questions that the California attorney general should address in the regulations that are set to be proposed for comment later this year.

The Right of Access — Rules of the Road

Section 110 of the CCPA sets forth the new right of access, and Section 130 lays out the basic procedures for data access requests and responses.

Section 110(a) provides that a covered business must "disclose" to a consumer, in response to a verified data access request: (1) the "categories" of personal information collected about the consumer (i.e., name, Social Security number, web browsing history); (2) the "categories" of sources from which the information was collected (i.e., online order history, cookies, web beacons); (3) the business or commercial purpose for the collection or sale of personal information (i.e., fraud prevention, marketing, etc.); (4) the categories of third parties with whom the business shares personal information (i.e., tailored advertising partners, affiliates); and (5) the "specific pieces" of personal information it has collected about that consumer, all in the year preceding the request.

Section 130(a)(2) sets forth the base requirements for a data access response. The response must be provided free of charge within 45 days of receipt of the "verifiable consumer request"1 through the customer's account with the business or electronically or in writing, at the consumer's election, if the consumer doesn't maintain an account with the business.

This period can be extended by an additional 45 days where "reasonably necessary," provided the consumer is given notice of the extension within the initial 45-day period, and perhaps also by an additional 90 days in some circumstances.2 The information must be provided "in a readily useable format that allows the consumer to transmit this information to another entity without hindrance."3

The concept of a right of access to data may seem simple, but, as anyone who is ramping up for CCPA compliance in a large organization can tell you, it just isn't. There are at least three significant challenges that the California attorney general will need to meet and to resolve in the coming regulations to rationalize and make workable the right of access as drafted.

First, the regulations should make clear that businesses need not reidentify or link to a consumer previously deidentified or pseudonymized data in fulfilling a data access request. Second, the regulations should confirm that a business is required to provide only the personal information pertaining to the consumer verified as having made the request, and not data of other household members or shared device users. Finally, the attorney general should clarify that businesses are not required to forfeit trade secrets in responding to data access requests.

The Right of Access Should Not Require Reidentification of Consumer Data

The definition of "personal information" in the CCPA includes information that "is capable of being associated with" a particular consumer or household.4 If this definition is read broadly to sweep within the concept of personal information data that has been deidentified or pseudonymized, then data access requests could trigger mass reidentification of previously deidentified or pseudonymized data, all to the detriment of consumers' broader data privacy interests.

Put simply, many businesses have made it a practice to protect consumer information by deidentifying or pseudonymizing consumer data, following best practices inspired by the privacy by design movement. A settled body of law in the United States and beyond recognizes that such data, because it can't be reasonably linked to a particular individual without additional information, isn't deserving of the protections of personal information.

The CCPA contains provisions to ensure that deidentified and psuedonymized data be maintained in such a way as to protect against reidentification.5 In addition, the CCPA makes clear that the duty to provide access to personal information does not require a business to reidentify or otherwise link data that is not maintained as personal information.6

In order to fulfill the purposes of the CCPA, it is important that the attorney general address this tension created by the potential breadth of the statutory definition of personal information. The problem is that the definition of personal information, if read broadly, could sweep within the scope of personal information deidentified or pseudonymized data simply because such data "is capable of being associated" with the consumer, no matter how unlikely or remote the possibility of association might be.

If such a broad reading were accepted, the rights of access and deletion could then be read to require reidentification of such data for the purpose of fulfilling data access and deletion requests. This would be highly problematic, not only for the businesses who would be burdened with the obligation to reidentify data but also for the data privacy interests of consumers for whom the information was deidentified in the first place. The attorney general should make clear in the regulations that the rights of access and deletion in the CCPA do not require businesses to reidentify or otherwise link previously deidentified or pseudonymized data.


1 A "[v]erifiable consumer request" is defined to include requests made by third parties on the consumer's behalf if the third party is registered with the Secretary of State to provide such services. See Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.140(y). The statute contemplates that the Attorney General will adopt regulations to guide businesses on appropriate standards for verification of consumer requests. See id. § 1798.185(a)(7).

2 Section 145(g)(1) seems to permit still another extension by an additional 90 days "where necessary, taking into account the complexity and number of the requests," again so long as notice is provided to the consumer in the initial 45-day period. The Attorney General should clarify in the regulations whether the 90-day extension provided in Section 145(g)(1) is in addition to, or an alternative to, the 45-day extension permitted by Section 130(a)(2).

3 Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.130(a)(2).

4 Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.140(o)(1).

5 See id. § 1798.140(h) (defining "[d]eidentified" to ensure against reidentification and to require safeguards to prohibit reidentification); id. § 1798.140(r) (defining "[p]seudonymize" similarly).

6 See id. § 1798.110(d)(2) (access right does not require a business to reidentify data that is "not maintained in a manner that would be considered personal information."); id. § 1798.145(a)(i) ("This title shall not be construed to require a business to reidentify or otherwise link information that is not maintained in a manner that would be considered personal information.").

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