With House Engaged in Privacy Battle, Congress Must Protect Medical, Financial Information

July 1, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, July 1, 1999

WASHINGTON — With the House of Representatives engaged in the first of many expected privacy battles, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged Congress to acknowledge that individuals have a right to control their personal medical and financial information.

The legislation before the House today, H.R. 10, the Financial Services Act of 1999, would remove the legal walls that currently separate banks, securities firms and insurance companies. The ACLU has taken no position on the underlying goals of H.R. 10, but said it is deeply concerned that the legislation contains no meaningful privacy protections and today sent a letter to the House urging that representatives oppose the bill.

“This legislation does violence to the principle that sensitive personal information disclosed for one purpose must not be used for other means without consent,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “It is time for Congress to stand up to big business and Big Brother to defend individual data.”

In pre-vote wrangling over the legislation yesterday, the powerful House Rules Committee refused to allow floor votes on two important privacy amendments.

The first, introduced by Representative Ed Markey, D-MA, would have given bank customers the opportunity to prohibit their banks from sharing personal information among their affiliated companies and outside firms. The second amendment, introduced by Reps. Gary Condit, D-CA, and Henry Waxman, D-CA, would have eliminated from the bill provisions that pretend to protect medical records privacy but that actually preempt more protective state laws.

The Rules Committee did allow a vote on an amendment supported by the ACLU that was introduced by Reps. Bob Barr, R-GA, Ron Paul, R-TX, and Tom Campbell, R-CA. The amendment would put banks out of the business of spying on their customers for the government. It would prohibit regulators from requiring banks to adopt programs similar to those that would have been required under the now discredited “Know Your Customer” regulations.

“As it stands now, this legislation offers essentially no medical records privacy rights and leaves our private financial records open to abuse,” Nojeim said. “Unfortunately, even if the ‘Know Your Customer’ amendment is adopted, this legislation represents such a threat to privacy that the ACLU urges all members of the House to oppose it.”

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