In the news

State House News Service
Katie Lannan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 8, 2018.....A bill aimed at providing relief and protections to victims of data breaches hit a legislative roadblock this week, but its sponsors say there's still a path forward.

Despite numerous call for action, the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure did not act on bills (H 134, S 130) that would allow Massachusetts residents to place free security freezes on their credit report, along with other measures intended to shield personal information from breaches like the one at the credit reporting agency Equifax last year.

"I just believe firmly that the Senate is intent on bringing up this Equifax bill, and I hope the House is as well," Sen. Barbara L'Italien, the committee's Senate chair and sponsor of the Senate bill, told the News Service.

Under legislative rules, most bills not voted on by the first Wednesday in February receive an automatic unfavorable report. Lawmakers do have the option of referring bills to another committee despite an unfavorable report, and L'Italien said the Senate could take such action on her bill next week.

L'Italien said the credit freeze legislation was one she could "not reach agreement on with my House chair," Rep. Tackey Chan of Quincy. She said the sticking point "may be" language that calls for credit reporting agencies to encrypt all personal information contained in credit reports.

"It may be encryption, but my point in all of this is that the House is free to release the bill of their choosing, the House chair is free to rewrite that bill and do what he may with it on the House side," L'Italien said. "I want the bill that I've worked on with the attorney general and with Rep. Benson to go forward on my side."

Attempts to reach Chan Thursday through his office were unsuccessful. In November, he said the committee was looking beyond just credit freezes to consider "the whole picture from the beginning to the end" when it comes to data theft.

"The focus is Equifax, but I don't want to ignore everybody else," Chan said at the time.

L'Italien and Rep. Jennifer Benson originally filed their bill in January 2017 in response to high-profile data breaches at Target and other retailers, and worked with Attorney General Maura Healey to put forward updated language in the fall when Equifax announced the personal information of more than 140 million people had been jeopardized.

Benson, a Lunenburg Democrat, began this session as the Consumer Protection Committee's House chair, but moved to the the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee in July when Speaker Robert DeLeo reshuffled chairmanships after Brian Dempsey resigned from the House.

She said she is "not exactly sure what the conversations are" in the committee about her bill but will continue to advocate for what she called "vitally important" measures.

"We have overwhelming support in the House and the Senate," Benson said. "I think if it takes moving mountains, I will do anything it takes to get this bill moving."

Backers of the bill on Thursday voiced disappointment that the committee did not advance the bill.

Noting that older adults "are increasingly the target for identity theft," AARP Massachusetts "strongly urges both chambers of the Legislature to find a path to reconsider and to pass a bill that would eliminate fees for credit report freezes before the end of this legislative session," AARP state director Michael Festa said in a statement.

The public interest group MASSPIRG issued a statement calling the bill "nothing less than imperative to pass."

"From our perspective and the consumer perspective, particularly after the demonstration by Equifax's failure a couple months ago to safeguard information, the Legislature cannot delay in passing a simple measure to allow consumers to safeguard their personal information," MASSPIRG legislative director Deirdre Cummings said in an interview. "Whatever mechanism they can employ to do that, we welcome it and we applaud it. I think we are rightly concerned when the bill is not following the typical legislative process."

According to MASSPIRG, Maine, Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina have all passed laws allowing free credit report freezes and similar bills are pending in other states.

"I think we're behind the eight ball," Cummings said. "It's not a complicated issue. We know it's massively popular, and in the end, this will protect consumers whose information is breached but then the larger picture is whenever there's identity theft we all pay, in terms of higher interest rates."

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