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A Times Editorial

The erosion of privacy

While government collects more and more personal information about citizens, there is too little concern for preventing that data from being widely disseminated.

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 1999

Anyone who cares about the privacy of his personal data is fighting a multifront war against the government, and losing badly.

There was a small victory recently when Gov. Jeb Bush stopped the sale of drivers' license photos to a private security firm, but there's a riptide going the other way. With computers making information easily cross-referenced and immediately accessible, the huge databases of information collected by the federal and state government on each of us have become windows into our lives. The privacy protections once in place are being swept aside in the name of convenience and expedience.

It may be reasonable for the government to gather highly personal financial and health records for the collection of taxes or to administer government health programs. But the danger is that once it's collected, it will be used for an unrelated purpose, a kind of "function creep" that has already begun.

For example, a new state law obligates the Department of Labor to sell the information it collects on the wages of Florida residents. Private credit agencies will be able to buy the information, with the consumer's consent, for income verification purposes. The government defends the new law by saying it's a consumer service. It will cut down on the wait for someone applying for a bank loan, because employment and salary verification would be done almost instantaneously. Nonetheless, Florida employers report quarterly to the DOL about their employees' salaries so the state can assess unemployment taxes, not to assist consumer-reporting companies. Why should we trust that the government will stop there? Next it might decide to sell our salary data to telemarketers or retail firms.

In addition to selling our personal information to private industry, the government is increasingly demanding that private industry turn over what it collects on us.

A three-year-old law to crack down on deadbeat parents forces private businesses to submit reports on every new hire and the names, addresses, salaries and Social Security numbers of all their workers. The database, which has information on virtually every working American, was part of the welfare program's revamping and is designed to catch parents who are delinquent in their child support. It's an unjustified electronic fishing expedition, because most American workers have no history of skipping out on child support.

Then, under the misnamed Bank Secrecy Act, the government has created a huge database of suspicious financial transactions by requiring banks to spy on their customers and report any dealings out of the ordinary -- all without a court order or the knowledge of the customer.

A few in Congress, including Reps. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Bob Barr, R-Ga., are trying to stem this tide, trying to resurrect privacy, but they're losing more fights than they win. Just Thursday the House further eroded consumer privacy when it voted to remove statutory barriers that had prevented banks, security firms and insurance companies from merging. The resulting conglomerates will have massive amounts of information on their customers, from their medical records to their mortgage payments, yet the House refused to do much to protect them from having that information shared.

In a nation that values civil liberties and has a good "it's none of my (or your) business" ethic, protecting citizen privacy should once again become a national priority.

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