Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rules that Massachusetts stores can't require your Zip code to complete a credit-card transaction


In Tyler v. Michaels Stores, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on March 11, 2013 that Michaels, an arts and craft  chain stores, violated Massachusetts consumer-privacy law when it used a woman's Zip code on her credit-card transaction to figure out where she lived and start spamming her with their ads. A US District Court judge in Boston originally ruled that Michael's was correct and Massachusetts law was meant only to prevent identity theft, not protect the privacy of consumers. But he agreed to certify the question to the Supreme Judicial Court - Massachusett's highest court - for its opinion on the questions raised under Massachusetts law.  Massachusett's highest court ruled that Section 105 says nothing about identity fraud and the original bill that led to the law specifically mentioned, in all capital letters, "CONSUMER PRIVACY IN COMMERCIAL TRANSACTIONS."

The Court then addressed the question of whether a Zip code constituted "personal identification information" that merchants aren't supposed to make consumers provide, since the law refers to "a credit card holder's address or telephone number" but doesn't mention Zip codes specifically.  The court ruled that modern data-mining technology meant the answer was "yes":
[B]ecause, according to (and accepting for present purposes) the allegations of [Tyler's class action] complaint, a consumer's zip code, when combined with the consumer's name, provides the merchant with enough information to identify through publicly available databases the consumer's address or telephone number, the very information [the state law] expressly identifies as personal identification information. In other words, to conclude in those circumstances that zip codes are not 'personal identification information' under the statute would render hollow the statute's explicit prohibition on the collection of customer addresses and telephone numbers, and undermine the statutory purpose of consumer protection.

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