American Civil Liberties Union

Consumer Action

Consumer Federation of America

Consumers Union

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Identity Theft Resource Center

Privacy Journal

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Privacy Times

U.S. Public Interest Research Group

6 October 2000

Prevent Identity Theft, Protect Social Security Number Privacy, Preserve States Rights

Dear Senator,

We are writing on behalf of a broad coalition of consumer, privacy and civil rights organizations concerned with protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens from intrusion by both government and commercial interests. We have worked with privacy leaders on both sides of the aisle, from Senators Shelby and Bryan to Representatives Markey and Barton, on important initiatives to ensure that government and commercial uses of confidential information are based on Fair Information Practices. While we have generally been disappointed that the 106th Congress has failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to enact strong privacy legislation, we believe there remains an opportunity before adjournment to enact Social Security Number privacy legislation that will reduce the growing threat of Internet stalking and financial identity theft.

Unfortunately, the bill that is closest to passage, S. 2554, (Gregg), incorporated as Section 626 into the Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations (HR 4690 RS) bill ready for floor action, would actually decrease the privacy of the American public.We oppose this legislation.Section 626 is full of loopholes for commercial interests and, worse, contains sweeping language that would preempt existing Social Security Number privacy laws in several states, and prevent any additional state level protection for Social Security Numbers. The bill is named for Amy Boyer, the victim of an Internet stalker who obtained her address from an Internet information broker. Tragically, however, the public records and commercial use exceptions in Section 626 of HR 4690 RS would probably allow future stalkers to continue to obtain Social Security Numbers from information brokers. Some of us believe the provision raises serious First Amendment concerns.

We believe that the Congress needs to move very carefully in its approach to protecting Social Security Number privacy, so that any new rules actually increase protections. This year, we recommend that you support legislation that would do two things: (1) Limit identity theft by closing the so-called “credit header” loophole (with some exceptions), and (2) Extend to the private sector the Privacy Act’s provision that makes it unlawful for a governmental agency to deny a right, benefit, or privilege merely because the individual refuses to disclose his Social Security Number.

CREDIT HEADER RESTRICTION: Section 203 of the Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act (HR 4857, Shaw), which was reported recently by the full House Ways and Means Committee, would explicitly prohibit the sale of “credit headers” containing Social Security Numbers by credit bureaus. Credit headers are sold to information brokers and can lead to identity theft. Although the Federal Trade Commission has ruled that consumers who exercise their forthcoming right to opt-out of the transfer of their personal information to unaffiliated third parties under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act can protect their Social Security Numbers in this manner, we believe this critical protection against stalking and identity theft should be granted to all consumers all of the time, by statute, not regulation. Also, information brokers are already challenging the regulation in court. A statute would provide a better solution.

ANTI-COERCION OF CONSENT: Section 202 of HR 4857 would establish the principle that a consumer can generally refuse to provide his or her Social Security Number to a private requester without retaliation. The Privacy Act of 1974 imposes similar limits on government agencies. Today consumers often face the choice of giving up their privacy, their Social Security Number, to obtain a service or product. The drafters of the 1974 law tried to ensure that citizens would not face such unfair choices when they seek government services. But there is no reason that this principle could not apply equally to the private sector, with limited exceptions, if any.

In the limited time remaining in this session, limited legislation addressing these key issues would restrict identity theft and grant consumers enormously greater control over the private use of their Social Security Numbers, without preempting more protective state laws or enshrining the sweeping exceptions of Section 626 of that swallow its limited rule. We urge you to oppose Section 626 of HR 4690 RS and support legislation that would close the credit header loophole and prevent businesses from coercing consumers to disclose their Social Security Numbers.

Sincerely,


Greg Nojeim

American Civil Liberties Union
Ken McEldowney

Consumer Action

Travis Plunkett

Consumer Federation of America

Frank Torres

Consumers Union

Andrew Shen

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Linda Foley

Identity Theft Resource Center

Robert Ellis Smith
Privacy Journal

Beth Givens

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Evan Hendricks

Privacy Times

Edmund Mierzwinski
U.S. Public Interest Research Group