- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

For once, Big Brother won't be watching you or releasing information about you to private, for-profit companies so they can harass you with dinner time telephone solicitations. Or making it possible for psychotics to track down your home address through Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) records.
Last week, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the dissemination of such information can be barred and that such prohibitions do not encroach upon state authority because of the infringement on personal privacy it represents.
You may not have known it, but DMVs in many states have for years routinely sold yes, sold information about you to telemarketing companies, among others. Millions of dollars in revenue have been generated in this fashion. State motor vehicle agencies have also been giving out this information for free (or for a small processing charge) to pretty much anyone who asks for it crooks and nutcases included.
Your name, address, telephone and Social Security numbers are all in the DMV computer. You had to provide them when you applied for a driver's license. And marketing companies are keenly interested in the data. It helps them find you, helps then nail down your likely income level (via your address; they can figure out how much your home is worth and thus how much cake you take home), and, most important of all, gives them the golden key to your ear a home telephone number.
They are quite willing to pay for this intelligence. And state DMVs have been eager to provide it.
Before you can say "Good evening, is this Mr. Smith?" an annoying call has interrupted your supper or made you get up from the sofa just when you were beginning to get comfortable.
But it gets worse. Fraud artists have discovered a veritable gold mine in those DMV computers. Information about you, such as your date of birth, address, Social Security number, etc. can be used to generate fake identities based on yours. Crooks can set up bank accounts, obtain credit cards, go on a shopping spree all in your name, naturally. The bills, of course, are credited to the "real" you until you manage to convince the merchants and credit reporting agencies that you're an innocent victim of fraud.
But worst of all, violent criminals can find out where you live simply by filing out a short form and cross-referencing your license plate number with DMV records. Actress Rebecca Schaeffer found out about this the hard way. She was murdered by a stalker who got her home address via the DMV. Congress responded to the Schaeffer murder by passing the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) in 1994; the DPPA bars states from disclosing personal information without the formal consent of the driver. It was this federal law that South Carolina, along with several other states, challenged as unconstitutional. Thankfully, the justices rejected these states' claims.
South Carolina and the other states argued the DPPA amounted to a federal usurpation of their authority. But the idea that a state government has the right to make private citizens' private information available to anyone who asks for it and even more egregious, to sell that information to telemarketers is an indicator of the arrogance of these state authorities and the contemptuous view they have of the ordinary people they exercise control over.
"A one-size fits none attempt by the federal government to protect privacy will not work," said South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon after the high court's decision was announced. But it will help put the kibosh on an unusually loathsome, even dangerous practice. It's bad enough that government is taxing us at levels not seen since the height of World War II. But turning us into Information Age milch cows by selling off our personal data is intolerable.
"It's a clear message to the states they're going to have to be much more careful," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Cheers to the Supreme Court for affirming our dignity and implicitly denouncing the state governments' abundant lack of it.

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