The privacy advocates represent an outraged public concerned that details of personal information be safeguarded.
Against that concern, there are some of the loudest and best-organized lobbies representing government agencies, private companies and professions that would be inconvenienced by regulations intended to protect consumers, bank depositors or patients.
For years, Congress wrestled, or tried to wrestle, with the thorny question of protecting the privacy of medical records. Finally, the lawmakers effectively gave up and tossed the ball into the court of the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS has effectively punted, with a rule that is labeled a "privacy" regulation that contains enough loopholes so that by the time the measure runs its full 1,500 pages, you have a document that would invade privacy far more often than it would protect it.
While that measure goes into a two-year period of "modifications" and "fine tuning," action on Capitol Hill is about to crank up to prevent the abuse and theft of your Social Security number.
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., is taking on the broad public- and private-sector coalition that has grown comfortable with the easy convenience of access to your Social Security number. He heads the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security, which plans hearings before Memorial Day on this growing privacy problem.
Shaw points out that the Social Security number was never intended to be a national ID number. But in the opinion of many, that is what it is rapidly becoming.
He notes that the pervasive use of Social Security numbers (SSN) has made them a primary target for fraud and misuse. Allegations of fraudulent SSN use increased from 10,915 in fiscal year 1998 to 30,115 in fiscal year 1999. That's a whopping 175 percent increase.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The larger issue beyond that goes to the concerns about personal privacy. Whether or not you’ve been targeted by fraud, there is a fundamental resentment on the part of Americans who don't want strangers pawing over their bank accounts, health records or personal habits.
There are laws on the books supposedly protecting privacy and reducing SSN misuse.
The 1974 Privacy Act prohibits federal agencies from disclosing personal information, including the Social Security number, without the individual’s consent.
More recently, the 1998 Identity Theft Act made it a federal crime to assume another person’s means of identification.
Shaw’s problem is that no law regulates the overall use of SSNs, and federal laws neither require nor prohibit other public and private uses of the SSN. Thus, his hearings will explore protecting consumer privacy and curbing fraudulent use of SSNs.
The Florida Republican has examined this problem before. Last year, he held hearings that included testimony from ordinary Americans going about their business, paying their bills on time, and assuming that as long as they were playing by the rules, the system was being fair with them.
But John T. and Mary Elizabeth H. Stevens of Upper Marlboro, Md., were in for a rude awakening when they discovered their Social Security numbers were used to open 33 fraudulent accounts with a total value of $113,000. Their credit had been destroyed.
The living hell that followed was described in John Stevens' congressional testimony:
"We have received harassing phone calls, been yelled at, insulted, humiliated and accused of not paying our bills and defaulting on loans. We have been denied credit and been forced to pay cash for major items that would normally be financed. Our Maryland home has been under surveillance, and my 1990 Ford Bronco was almost towed by Nations Bank [now Bank of America] attempting to repossess a 1997 Jeep Cherokee [which the Stevenses had never bought but which had been fraudulently charged to their account]."
The Stevens couple had to undergo multiple living nightmares that included accounts that were supposedly settled and cleared, only to show up on their records again and lead to the same harassment over and over again.
Stevens testified that his Social Security number "was the only consistent item in the copies of applications that we have received. It was the primary identification factor required by the creditors and the credit-reporting agencies."
And he concluded: "Treating a Social Security number with the same respect and handling as a classified document would alleviate some of the problems now being experienced. To receive a classified document, the recipient must have proper clearance and a valid need-to-know for that information. It must be properly stored, protected and accounted for. Any loss or improper use is subject to severe penalties."
The Stevens couple involved one of the more extreme cases of what can happen when a Social Security number is passed around as if it were a national ID card. But banks, credit bureaus and insurance companies are lobbying hard against anything even approaching what John Stevens asked for.
During those same hearings, for example, the Shaw committee heard testimony from Stuart K. Pratt, a lobbyist for Associated Credit Bureaus Inc. He cited what he said were the needs to build accurate database systems "in the context of a highly mobile society."
Pratt noted that each year, about 16 percent of the population, or about 42 million Americans, move and change addresses. Then you factor in the 2.4 million marriages, 1.2 million divorces annually, the 6 million vacation or second homes, and how is a creditor to keep up with all that without a consistent number to track someone?
Privacy-oriented lawmakers are saying, in so many words, "That’s your problem." Pratt’s complaint: "Absent the availability of the SSN, we will be less able to build accurate databases, to accurately identify records and to help prevent the very crime through the development of fraud prevention and authentication tools." The public (judging by the polls) and privacy defenders in Congress are saying, "Go find another way."
A high-profile example of what's been going on came to light a few months ago when a California man was convicted of using Tiger Woods' Social Security number.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., points out that in 1999 a reputable Fortune 500 company, U.S. Bancorp, legally sold account information including Social Security numbers for 1 million of its customers to a telemarketer that offers discounts on such things as travel and health care services.
But there's another underlying concern as to why efforts are under way by lawmakers such as Shaw and Shelby to protect Social Security information.
The public has become more gun-shy of privacy invasions by such heavy-handed Clinton administration actions as Filegate, IRS audits of administration critics, goons sent out to track down and harass critics, and the like. There are many other reasons, of course. But the Clinton presidency may have served as a wake-up call for those who want to protect your private and personal information, not just from creditors, but from government itself.
On Feb. 14, just 25 days after Bill Clinton left office, Shelby arose on the floor of the Senate and announced he was introducing a bill to make Social Security numbers "nonpublic personal information." Senate hearings are expected this year.
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