ALERT Government Privacy Act combats identity theft

From Examiner.com (7/30/09)
By Joe Campana

Online access to public records containing Social Security Numbers (SSNs) by anyone, anywhere and for any reason should be banned in every state because it facilitates the growing crime of identity theft. Senator Chuck Schumer introduced the ALERT Government Privacy Act or Avoiding Sleepy Local Government’s Online Disclosure of Personally Identifiable Information.

This bill comes the day after Schumer introduced the ALERT Driver’s Act that  bans text messaging. The Alert Government Privacy Act will help address identity theft, a crime that afflicts ten million or more consumers each year.

Schumer says he won’t be challenged in getting such legislation passed because of convincing data on identity theft compared to traffic accident injuries involving texting while driving. There were 34,000 traffic fatalities and 2.3 million traffic-related injuries in 2008, the lowest since 1961. Those that were a result of text messaging while driving are speculative and are likely a small fraction of the totals. In contrast, identity theft is growing; it’s up over 20% in 2008. Identity theft reports exceeded 310,000 and the FTC estimates that nearly 10 million Americans are afflicted with this often debilitating crime each year.

A solution for the unnecessary online disclosure of sensitive information from public records is that counties and other units of local government will have to truncate or redact sensitive information, such as SSNs, Drivers License Numbers and account numbers. Schumer proposes to get states to enact the ALERT Government Privacy Act by withholding Federal aid to local governments, such as counties, until they enact laws that protect the sensitive information that Americans have entrusted with them.

Thus far, this article is a spoof. Now, let’s get real.

Last year the Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a study at Schumer’s request on the extent that public records containing Social Security Numbers were available for bulk purchase and online. The report concluded that 85% of large counties and 41% of small counties make records that may contain SSNs available in bulk or online.

Several Federal and GAO reports and testimony by the FTC  conclude that unrestricted access to public records containing SSNs can be an identity theft threat factor. The solution is simple—redaction or truncation of the sensitive information contained in online public records. Several states such as California, Illinois and Florida have already enacted laws barring disclosure of sensitive information that may be contained in public records. These state laws are intended to protect citizens from identity theft, invasion of privacy and harassment.

Would such legislation pass? Yesterday, the FTC delayed enforcement of the Red Flags Rule a third time. This new law was heralded to help decrease identity theft by requiring the careful identity authentication of any person who attempts to open a new account or any person who tries to change or access an existing account. This third delay in compliance enforcement came with prodding by the House Appropriations Committee. While it is understandable that the committee may be hypersensitive to small businesses during these troubled times, the delay also suggests that the committee isn’t serious about ending the identity theft epidemic in the U.S. Identity theft costs consumers and businesses $60 billion annually.

The Alert Government Privacy Act would likely draw criticism from state, county and local governments. A convenient objection is that local government doesn’t have funding to protect our sensitive information. Although, many counties charge an online access fee that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by selling our SSNs to anyone, anywhere and for any purpose. All they need is an Internet connection.

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