Navigating Preemption through the Lens of Existing State Privacy Laws

This post is part of an ongoing series on federal preemption and enforcement in United States federal privacy legislation. See Preemption in US Privacy Laws (June 14, 2021).

In drafting a federal baseline privacy law in the United States, lawmakers must decide to what extent the law will override state and local privacy laws. In a previous post, we discussed a survey of 12 existing federal privacy laws passed between 1968-2003, and the extent to which they are preemptive of similar state laws. 

Another way to approach the same question, however, is to examine the hundreds of existing state privacy laws currently on the books in the United States. Conversations around federal preemption inevitably focus on comprehensive laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act, or the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act — but there are hundreds of other state privacy laws on the books that regulate commercial and government uses of data. 

In reviewing existing state laws, we find that they can be categorized usefully into: laws that complement heavily regulated sectors (such as health and finance); laws of general applicability; common law; laws governing state government activities (such as schools and law enforcement); comprehensive laws; longstanding or narrowly applicable privacy laws; and emerging sectoral laws (such as biometrics or drones regulations). As a resource, we recommend: Robert Ellis Smith, Compilation of State and Federal Privacy Laws (last supplemented in 2018). 

  1. Heavily Regulated Sectoral Silos. Most federal proposals for a comprehensive privacy law would not supersede other existing federal laws that contain privacy requirements for businesses, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA). As a result, a new privacy law should probably not preempt state sectoral laws that: (1) supplement their federal counterparts and (2) were intentionally not preempted by those federal regimes. In many cases, robust compliance regimes have been built around federal and state parallel requirements, creating entrenched privacy expectations, privacy tools, and compliance practices for organizations (“lock in”).
  1. Laws of General Applicability. All 50 states have laws barring unfair and deceptive commercial and trade practices (UDAP), as well as generally applicable laws against fraud, unconscionable contracts, and other consumer protections. In cases where violations involve the mis-use of personal information, such claims could be inadvertently preempted by a national privacy law.
  1. State Common Law. Privacy claims have been evolving in US common law over the last hundred years, and claims vary from state to state. A federal privacy law might preempt (or not preempt) claims brought under theories of negligence, breach of contract, product liability, invasions of privacy, or other “privacy torts.”
  2. State Laws Governing State Government Activities. In general, states retain the right to regulate their own government entities, and a commercial baseline privacy law is unlikely to affect such state privacy laws. These include, for example, state “mini Privacy Acts” applying to state government agencies’ collection of records, state privacy laws applicable to public schools and school districts, and state regulations involving law enforcement — such as government facial recognition bans.
  1. Comprehensive or Non-Sectoral State Laws. Lawmakers considering the extent of federal preemption should take extra care to consider the effect on different aspects of omnibus or comprehensive consumer privacy laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the Colorado Privacy Act, and the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act. In addition, however, there are a number of other state privacy laws that can be considered “non-sectoral” because they apply broadly to businesses that collect or use personal information. These include, for example, CalOPPA (requiring commercial privacy policies), the California “Shine the Light” law (requiring disclosures from companies that share personal information for direct marketing), data breach notification laws, and data disposal laws.
  1. Longstanding, Narrowly Applicable State Privacy Laws. Many states have relatively long-standing privacy statutes on the books that govern narrow use cases, such as: state laws governing library records, social media password laws, mugshot laws, anti-paparazzi laws, state laws governing audio surveillance between private parties, and laws governing digital assets of decedents. In many cases, such laws could be expressly preserved or incorporated into a federal law. 
  1. Emerging Sectoral and Future-Looking Privacy Laws. New state laws have emerged in recent years in response to novel concerns, including for: biometric data; drones; connected and autonomous vehicles; the Internet of Things; data broker registration; and disclosure of intimate images. This trend is likely to continue, particularly in the absence of a federal law.

Congressional intent is the “ultimate touchstone” of preemption. Lawmakers should consider long-term effects on current and future state laws, including how they will be impacted by a preemption provision, as well as how they might be expressly preserved through a Savings Clause. In order to help build consensus, lawmakers should work with stakeholders and experts in the numerous categories of laws discussed above, to consider how they might be impacted by federal preemption.

ICYMI: Read the first blog in this series PREEMPTION IN US PRIVACY LAWS.

Navigating Preemption through the Lens of Existing State Privacy Laws