Court Ruling Gives Dog Owners Less Privacy Than Their Dogs

A lawsuit filed against a New Jersey city for refusing to turn over dog license data to a business owner for marketing has resulted in a strange state Supreme Court ruling that seemingly provides greater privacy rights to dogs than their human counterparts, privacy groups say. 

In 2001 the state of New Jersey passed the Open Public Records Act, allowing anyone to fill out a form and receive certain government documents within seven business days. The goal of the law was to give state residents more transparent insight into the working of government, with an eye on limiting potential corruption.

Instead, there has been a growing rise in complaints that companies are exploiting the law to harvest citizen data for marketing purposes, something municipal clerks say is consuming valuable public resources.

Invisible dog fence salesman Ernest Bozzi has been filing lawsuits against New Jersey cities that refuse to turn over dog owner names and addresses for marketing purposes. In 2019 his lawyer argued to local news outlets that if big banks are allowed to obtain public data to help them in mortgage solicitation, small businesses should be allowed to do the same.

This week the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of handing over the names and addresses of dog owners in the city. But while the ruling gave short shrift to the privacy interests of human beings, it simultaneously declared that turning over the names and breeds of the dogs themselves would be taking things too far.

In the ruling the court justifies handing over the data by declaring that “owning a dog is, inherently, a public endeavor,” since dog owners take their beloved pups on “daily walks, grooming sessions, veterinarian visits,” “celebrate their animals on social media or bumper stickers,” and “enter their dogs into public shows.”

Two dissenting justices pointed out the flaws in that particular argument, noting that “dog owners appearing in public with their dogs do not do so while simultaneously advertising their full names and addresses.”

“When Jersey City residents, acting as good citizens, register their dogs and obtain licenses, it is difficult to imagine that they believe the information provided to their local government in compliance with the law will be subject to widespread distribution to anyone who makes a request under the guise of transparency of government functions,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote in her dissent.

But the court ruled that disclosing breed information would be a problem, “given the high value of certain purebred dogs.” It also declared that dog names should not be disclosed “given that many people use the names of their beloved pets as passwords or answers to important security questions.” The plaintiff in the case asked only for dog owner names and addresses.

The ruling drew the ire of privacy group EPIC, which has previously filed an amicus brief and presented oral arguments in the case. EPIC argued that New Jersey should follow federal guidelines on privacy, and not be disclosing citizen data “when the only justification for disclosure was commercial interest in selling dog paraphernalia.”

“The core interest of open government laws is to shed light on the workings of the government—not to transform the government into a lead generator for commercial ventures,” the group said. “Federal law prohibits the disclosure of personal information unless there is a public interest in the disclosure, and even then the public interest must be weighed against the privacy interest.”

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