Study Says Government Computer Use May Be Leaving Privacy Laws Behind

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Study Says Government Computer Use May Be Leaving Privacy Laws Behind

Federal laws protecting individual privacy are inadequate to deal with the government's growing use of large computer data bases, a congressional report says.

Technological changes have created more efficient government record-keeping and enabled the government to better detect fraud, waste, and abuse, according to a study from the Office of Technology Assessment. However, individual privacy suffers when information is purposely or inadvertently given to other agencies.

The study is the third in a series, "Federal Government Information Technology: Congressional Oversight and Civil Liberties,' by the technology office, a nonpartisan agency that evaluates policy options for Congress.

The report said computer profiling and front-end verification are two popular electronic methods used to cross-check the accuracy of personal information contained in different systems. Front-end verification means that the accuracy and completeness of personal information is certified at the time the individual applies for government benefits. By contrast, computer matching involves comparing computer records after an individual is receiving government benefits. Both methods are untouched by the Privacy Act of 1974, however, because the legislation was designed to safeguard paper-based data, the report said.

"These same advances in technology can also give rise to greater unauthorized or inappropriate use of the information at the government's disposal,' said Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., a member of the committee on governmental affairs. He cosponsored the report with the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on courts, civil liberties, and the administration of justice.

"The protections of the Privacy Act have been rendered meaningless by the government's ability to correct, store, and exchange information in electronic form,' said Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, chairman of the subcommittee on oversight of government management.

Credit bureaus, for example, routinely cross-match computer lists and conduct front-end verification for debt-collecting agencies, the report said. They would face additional restriction and limited access to government "de facto data bases' if Congress creates more stringent legislation based on the congressional study.

Report Cites Little Oversight

According to the report, there are no policy guidelines for use of computer-assisted front-end verification. Possible congressional actions analyzed by the Office of Technology Assessment include improving general oversight by the creation of a privacy commission, or by measures to address the specific problems of privacy, confidentiality, and security.

"The rights and remedies available to the individual, as well as agency responsibilities for handling personal information, are not clear, however,' the report said.

"Even where applications are covered by the Privacy Act or related Office of Management and Budget guidelines, there is little oversight to ensure agency compliance.'

Credit bureau needs for cross-listed data remain strong. Credit bureau computers process thousands of daily requests from credit grantors wanting checks on an individual's experience with bank loan repayment, credit cards, and other credit-related history. …