Does Digital Age Spell Privacy's Doom? ; State Laws Help Inform People When Their Personal Data Has Been Stolen, but Some Want Stronger Measures at the Federal Level

Article excerpt

"'The right to be let alone," Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said, is "the right most valued by civilized men." That right seems under renewed attack today in a world where personal records are stored digitally and can be obtained by those clever enough to hack in or by simply grabbing a laptop computer. Nearly every day, a new headline tells of Americans' private information being stolen by criminals or combed through by government agencies seeking terrorists.

What's the outlook for privacy? It's probably going to get worse before it gets better, some experts say. But new protections, mostly enacted at the state level, are helping. Congress may finally get into the act as early as this week, though consumer advocates say new federal laws may actually weaken privacy protections, depending on how they are worded.

Congress is acting none too soon, say some observers. "The Congress is way late - a day late and a dollar short - when it comes to privacy," says Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant in Washington, D.C., who served for nearly two decades as a congressional aide focused on privacy issues. "All the creative things that have been going on in privacy have been going on at the state level."

Since February 2005, when data-aggregation company ChoicePoint revealed that scammers had tricked it into providing them with the private financial records of 163,000 people, at least 88 million individual records held by the government or private companies have been exposed to possible theft, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. The incidents occurred in a variety of ways, from both government and private databases.

In one highly publicized case, the Social Security numbers and other personal information of some 28 million US military veterans were stolen from a government employee's home in May. In one of many private examples, 243,000 customer records of hotels.com were lost when a laptop computer was stolen from a vehicle in February. The drumbeat of losses continues: Last week, the US Agriculture Department said a hacker had broken into its computer system and may have stolen Social Security numbers and photos of 26,000 of the department's employees and contractors.

In addition, new questions are being raised about government eyes on personal data. An investigation by the Associated Press found that federal and local law enforcement agencies routinely mined telephone records of Americans without obtaining subpoenas or warrants. According to the AP, they did so by employing private data brokers, who used deceptive and questionable tactics to obtain the information.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has come under fire for allegedly wiretapping Americans without obtaining a warrant. In an article last week in Salon, the online magazine, two ex-employees of AT&T said a hidden room at an AT&T center may be being used by the NSA for phone surveillance. Last week, AT&T announced a "clarification" in its privacy policy: "While your account information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T," the statement said. "As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."

On Monday, President Bush and Vice President Cheney blasted the New York Times for revealing a secret government program that, according to the Times, can track banking transactions made by Americans between US and foreign banks. They declared the effort to be legal and an important aid in the war on terrorism.

At this point, observers say, Congress seems unready to pick up the political hot potato of government snooping that serves national security interests.

But Congress is looking at safeguards against ordinary criminals. Businesses are frustrated by the crazy quilt of state and local privacy regulations they must know and observe. …