On August 17, 2009, the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (the “OCABR”) issued a press release announcing important amendments to 201 CMR 17.00: Standards for the Protection of Personal Information of Residents of the Commonwealth (the “Regulations”), and a third extension of its effective date from January 1, 2010 to March 1, 2010. The OCABR also called a public hearing scheduled for September 22, 2009 in connection with the Regulations.

In addition to extending the effective date, the amendments (i) clarify the risk-based approach to the Regulations, (ii) coordinate the requirements for third party vendors with similar requirements of federal law, and (iii) require appropriate encryption technology to the extent technically feasible. The OCABR also offered further guidance through additional Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) issued along with the amendments.

As reported in our previous Client Advisories, the Regulations require any business, regardless of size and location, that owns, licenses, stores or maintains “personal information” of Massachusetts residents, including customers, employees, and others, to develop a written information security program (“WISP”) or revise its existing security policies, to amend third party contracts, and to implement encryption and other safeguards to satisfy the Massachusetts requirements. Personal information means first name and last name or first initial and last name plus a Social Security number, driver's license number, financial account number or credit card of any Massachusetts resident, including employees, customers, vendors, or insureds.

In an effort to ease the burden on small businesses, the OCABR amended the Regulations to make clear that the Regulations are risked-based in both implementation and enforcement, stressing the notion that there is no one-size-fits-all WISP. Compliance with the Regulations will be judged on a case-by-case basis to take into account the following factors: (i) the size, scope and type of business handling the information; (ii) the amount of resources available to the business; (iii) the amount of stored data; and (iii) the need for security and confidentiality of both consumer and employee information. This risk-based approach brings the Regulations in line with both the enabling legislation and applicable federal law, including the Safeguards Rule (16 CFR Part 314) promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission, which requires financial institutions to have a security plan to protect personal consumer information.

The Regulations have also been amended to make third party vendor requirements consistent with federal law. Under the amended Regulations, companies must oversee their third party vendors by:

  1. Taking reasonable steps to select and retain third party service providers that are capable of maintaining appropriate security measures to protect such personal information consistent with these regulations and any applicable federal regulations; and
  2. Requiring such third party service providers by contract to implement and maintain such appropriate security measures for personal information.

Another notable change to the Regulations includes making the encryption requirement flexible. In keeping with the risk-based approach, the Regulations are now technology neutral, meaning they do not require specific encryption technology. Further, encryption is required only to the extent “technically feasible.” The phrase “technically feasible” is defined in the FAQs to mean “if there is a reasonable means through technology to accomplish a required result, then that reasonable means must be used.”

The new FAQs also clarify the following important issues, including the following:

  1. Portable devices that contain personal information of Massachusetts residents must be encrypted where it is reasonable and technically feasible to do so.
  2. An account is a financial account, and thus must be protected under the WISP, if unauthorized access could result in an increase of financial burden or a misappropriation of monies, credit or other assets.
  3. An insurance policy number is a financial account number if it grants access to a person’s finances, results in an increase of financial burden, or a misappropriation of monies, credit or other assets.
  4. Compliance with HIPAA does not eliminate a company’s obligation to comply with the Regulations if the company owns or licenses personal information of a Massachusetts resident.
  5. Backup tapes must be encrypted prospectively, and existing backup tapes must also be encrypted under certain circumstances.

While the effective date of the Regulations has been postponed to March 1, 2010, there is a considerable amount of work that companies, including many located outside Massachusetts, will need to do to comply.

Click here to view the official press release announcing the amendments and extension of effective date; here to view the FAQs; and here to view the amended Regulations.