Citing Continuing Privacy Threats, ACLU Calls for Hearings on Government Databases

February 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, February 18, 1999

WASHINGTON–Following revelations that the U.S. Secret Service funded a private company’s efforts to develop a national database of driver’s license photographs, the American Civil Liberties Union today called on the government to protect — not prostitute — Americans’ privacy.

According to news reports, Congress authorized nearly $1.5 million in federal funds and technical assistance to Image Data LLC of New Hampshire in the hopes that the photo files could be used by law enforcement to combat terrorism, immigration abuses and other “identity crimes.”

“The biggest ‘identity crime’ taking place right now is the government masquerading as our privacy protectors,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “Not only is the government abusing access to our personal information, but it is funding private efforts to do the same and worse.”

Murphy called on Congress to strengthen the loophole-ridden 1994 Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act, which is failing to prevent states from selling or disclosing personal information about drivers without their consent. The Act has been under attack recently in the courts by states including Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, all of whom seek the power to sell this information without federal control.

In a letter sent yesterday to congressional leaders of the Government Reform Committee, the ACLU and other groups concerned about personal privacy called for hearings on the civil liberties threats to privacy posed by the “abuse and authorized misuse of federal databases.”

“We are concerned about proposals that the federal government use database information, initially gathered for one purpose, for completely unrelated purposes, without the consent of the person to whom the data relates,” the groups said.

Earlier this month, ACLU affiliates in Florida, South Carolina and Colorado criticized officials of those states for selling residents’ driver’s license information to Image Data. In Florida, the ACLU prevailed on the governor to cancel the state’s contract with Image Data; Colorado’s governor is seeking to do thesame. In a statement issued today, the ACLU of Florida called on the legislature to go a step further and repeal the amendment that permits the transfer of personal information. The ACLU of South Carolina also sent a letter today to state officials.

In South Carolina, a judge last week rejected the state’s attempt to halt the sale on privacy grounds. The state is appealing that decision. Meanwhile, a South Carolina woman has filed a class-action suit against the state, saying that residents’ privacy rights were violated.

“It is clear that congressional lawmakers were anticipating all sorts of uses for the information that were never communicated to the state officials providing the data,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “It is also clear that federal law enforcement officials were rubbing their hands in anticipation of a private data bonanza.”

Steinhardt noted that the state officials sold thousands of driver’s licenses files without informed consent for only a penny per record. “For the government to prostitute our private information is bad enough,” he said. “And to charge only a penny for our privacy adds insult to injury.”

The ACLU of Florida’s statement can be found at: /node/10606

The ACLU of Florida’s previous press release can be found at: /node/10750

The ACLU of South Carolina’s letter to the governor James H. Hodges can be found at: /community/southcar/letter.html

February 17, 1999

Chairman Dan Burton
Rep. Henry Waxman
Government Reform Committee
2157 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Chairman Burton and Rep. Waxman:

On behalf of the diverse group of Americans we represent, we write to respectfully request that you hold a committee hearing on the threat to privacy and civil liberties posed by the abuse and authorized misuse of federal databases. We are concerned about proposals that the federal government use database information, initially gathered for one purpose, for completely unrelated purposes, without the consent of the person to whom the data relates. Uses and content of many of the databases authorized by Congress, despite privacy objections, are being expanded without Congressional or public debate.

For instance, in the closing days of the 105th Congress the Clinton Administration proposed that the federal government’s “New Hires” database, authorized under the guise of tracking down “deadbeat dads,” be made accessible to the Department of Education to track down deadbeat student loan holders. The anticipated savings were listed as a spending “offset” for the President’s proposed new teachers program. The federal government’s “New Hires” database includes the name, social security number, and address of all new employees (and was authorized only following repeated assurances by lawmakers that it would be used solely for its stated purpose). Eleventh-hour grassroots efforts convinced lawmakers of the dangers of expanding the database’s uses and the White House ultimately abandoned its effort.

Earlier in the 105th Congress, the House barely rejected an effort to expand the use of the national worker database that was authorized in Section 656 (b) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This database, which includes the name, date of birth and social security number of virtually everyone in the United States, was authorized under the guise of denying jobs to undocumented immigrants. In fact, it amounts to a congressionally authorized effort by the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to test a national ID system. In the context of campaign finance legislation, the House narrowly rejected proposals to authorize use of the database to check the immigration status of voters – a virtual national voter database.

Probably the most public of all database proposals last year was the national health identifiers, or national health care ID number. Americans were outraged when the plan to issue a health care ID number that would provide access to personal medical information without adequate privacy protections was revealed on the front page of the New York Times. Their outcry led to a moratorium on the issuance of a unique health identifier in last year’s omnibus appropriations act, now known as Public Law 105-277.

Mr. Chairman, the proliferation of massive federal databases with virtually no safeguards amounts to a piecemeal erosion of the American people’s privacy and undermines our civil liberties. It seems that an enormous amount of personal information is being shared with an increasing number of un-elected bureaucrats without congressional oversight. Moreover, Congress itself seems poised to consider more uses of existing federal databases without adequate consideration of threats they post to personal privacy, and without assessing the impact on our society at the macro level.

This is why we respectfully that request your committee investigate the federal government’s use of these types of databases, the abuses that have already occurred, and the potential for future abuse. We believe that such a hearing would be both informative to an unaware general public and beneficial to policymakers who continually are under pressure to find more efficient ways of governing.

Thank you for considering our request on this most important issue. Please respond directly to Lisa Dean at the Free Congress Foundation and she will share your response with the other organizations listed below. Lisa can be reached at 202-546-3000 x365.


Lisa S. Dean
Vice President for Technology Policy
Free Congress Foundation

Shari Steele
Director of Legal Services
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Laura W. Murphy
Washington National Office
American Civil Liberties Union

Jerry Berman
Executive Director
Center for Democracy and Technology

Phyllis Schlafly
Eagle Forum

Carmen Pate
Concerned Women For America

David Sobel
General Counsel
Electronic Privacy Information Center

Cc: Chairman Steve Horn, Government Management, Information and
Technology Subcommittee,
Rep. Jim Turner, Government Management, Information and
Technology Subcommittee
Chairman David McIntosh, National Economic Growth, Natural
Resources and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, National Economic Growth, Natural
Resources and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee

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