- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Almost everything is for sale on the Internet — even the Social Security numbers of top government officials like CIA Director George J. Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft, consumer advocates warned yesterday.

The California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said for $26 each it was able to purchase the Social Security numbers and home addresses for Mr. Tenet, Mr. Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials, including chief political adviser Karl Rove.

That illustrates the need for stronger protections of personal information, the group said.

The foundation specifically wants to affect legislation in the House that would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican, and Darlene Hooley, Oregon Democrat, and dozens of other members, aims to prevent identity theft and improve the accuracy of consumer records, among other things.

While backing the overall goals of the bill, the group’s executive director, Jamie Court, objected to a portion of it that would continue a pre-emption of tougher state privacy laws.

California Gov. Gray Davis yesterday signed such legislation, allowing consumers to block companies from sharing personal information with affiliate businesses.

“Banks and insurers should not be able to go to Washington as an end run around the most protective state privacy laws,” Mr. Court said.

The Bush administration has urged Congress to act quickly to strengthen the nation’s credit laws and has praised the House proposal. The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the first few weeks after lawmakers return from their August recess.

Bachus spokesman Evan Keefer said the legislation contains important provisions that will be tough on fraud. He said the issue raised by the foundation is something lawmakers would examine in conference, after votes in the House and Senate.

The foundation wants to see a strong national law on credit reporting, but Mr. Court said that should not preclude states from passing even stronger privacy protections.

He said stopping trafficking of information among corporate affiliates is key because some companies have hundreds of businesses under the family umbrella. For example, a banking corporation may have several insurance, securities and real estate affiliates with which it does business and financial data may be swapped among all.

“If you cannot stop the traffic in your information among corporate affiliates, you don’t have privacy in this nation,” Mr. Court said.

In addition to Social Security numbers, Mr. Court said, some online sites will give out a person’s bank account balance for about $300.

Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse based in San Diego, said at least a dozen sites provide Social Security numbers and other private data.

“If you’re willing to spend a little money, you can get this type of information very easily on the Internet,” she said.

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