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    Nelson says he'll preserve privacy

    The Democrat wants to limit how banks and insurance companies use personal data.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- Do Florida voters care about their personal financial and medical records being shared among banks and insurance companies? Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson hopes so.

    On Wednesday, Nelson promised to put consumer privacy at the forefront of the Senate race, advocating a series of restrictions on how banks and insurance companies use their clients' personal data.

    "We've reached the point in the information age where we must come to grips with privacy rights before it is too late," the Insurance Commissioner said at a Tallahassee news conference the morning after winning the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Sen. Connie Mack.

    In seizing the privacy issue, Nelson continues his efforts to portray himself as the voice for consumers in the Senate race. But he also has an issue that has earned his chief rival, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, widespread criticism from consumer and civil liberties advocates.

    Last year, the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference awarded McCollum its Orwell Award, a trophy featuring a boot smashing the side of a face. Conference organizers cited McCollum's efforts to expand the FBI's wiretapping authority and ability to examine computer data.

    McCollum, preparing to embark on a three-day bus tour through North Florida, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But his campaign spokeswoman, Shannon Gravitte, scoffed at Nelson's regular calls for restoring "civility to the public square."

    "Then right after the primary, (Nelson) heads to the podium to attack Bill McCollum and distort his record," she said. "The notion that Bill McCollum is anti-consumer is ridiculous."

    When Congress in 1999 overhauled the nation's banking laws to let banks, insurance companies and brokerage houses merge, critics worried that financial privacy was vulnerable. The law, for instance, lets institutions share personnel data with affiliates and with unaffiliated firms that sign joint marketing agreements.

    McCollum has supported allowing affiliated companies to share personal information and has opposed efforts to add limits to such information sharing. He was a leading sponsor of a 1996 bill to that effect, and in 1998 he wrote the Comptroller of the Currency to oppose plans to impose additional privacy restrictions. It would be "problematic" for the financial institutions, he wrote.

    Last year, McCollum voted against adding language to the landmark financial services bill that would prohibit customers' financial and medical records from being distributed without consent.

    When the House Banking Committee this summer considered adding privacy provisions to that financial services law, McCollum did not vote, Nelson noted, pointing out that the financial services industry has been among the most generous contributors to McCollum's Senate campaign.

    "My opponent puts special interests ahead of the public interests," Nelson said. "I believe Florida needs a senator that will serve the people and not the powerful."

    Nelson's proposals include requiring "affirmative consent" from consumers before any private financial information could be shared and requiring written authorization before any "individually identifiable health information" could be shared.

    - Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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