Backlash against Privacy Invasions May Tame Freewheeling Internet

Article excerpt

Carroll Oberst still seethes at how his identity was stolen off the Internet by a man who opened bank and credit-card accounts in his name -- and ran up $35,000 in bills.

But Oberst no longer feels helpless. He recently joined a growing group of privacy victims fighting back against what they see as a common scourge: the speedy, cheap access to a range of personal details that is made possible by computer networks.

Countering society's thirst for information, the increasingly vocal dissent is prodding lawmakers from California to Congress to crack down on electronic abuse by unscrupulous individuals and businesses. The measures -- for better or for worse -- seem poised to tame a freewheeling medium that has boomed on unlimited access. Today, for nominal fees, personal details such as Social Security numbers can be found over the Internet and used to create a whole new identity for opening an account -- and sticking the fraud victim with the bills. The backlash is particularly evident in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oklahoma, where state lawmakers are pushing dozens of privacy-protection measures that include restrictions on credit reports and the sale of confidential medical and genetic information to marketers and other businesses. And in Congress, roughly 50 privacy-protection measures are pending. The clampdown is resisted by marketers, who have prospered by mining electronic records to custom-tailor pitches to customers, and free-speech advocates who fret about restricting legitimate access to information. Yet recent horror stories are commanding greater public sympathy. While no figures are available, experts note anectdotally an alarming increase in victims, who like the canaries in the coal mine could presage broader U.S. fallout unless action is taken. * Grocer-pharmacist Giant Food and CVS, a drugstore chain, sold customers' medical information to a marketing company that sent consumers coupons for drugs related to their disorders. An outcry of privacy concerns halted the practice. * Veteran sailor Timothy R. McVeigh faced expulsion for homosexuality early this year based on evidence the Navy gathered from America Online, the largest computer online service. McVeigh, since reinstated, had put his sexual preferences in an online profile he thought was confidential. A judge also ruled that Navy violated the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act by obtaining confidential information about McVeigh from AOL without a warrant or court order. * Retail salesman Bronti Kelly, 34, of Temecula, Calif., couldn't figure out for years why no one would hire him: A tainted police record sent across the Internet to employers mislabeled him a shoplifter. Employers aren't required to tell candidates why they aren't hired. The May Co., which failed to correct the erroneous shoplifting report, was ordered in January to pay more than $73,000 to Kelly, who ended up homeless when he couldn't get a job. * A court gave a maximum sentence of six years in prison to the man who used the Social Security number and other personal details about Oberst, 67, of Redding, Calif., that he had obtained over the Internet a year ago. "With advent of the Internet, you're seeing a whole new class of victims," said Dave Banisar, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based watchdog group. …

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