Don’t Override State Privacy Laws, Activist Says

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A California privacy advocate called on President Bush and Congress on Wednesday to respect state laws that limit banks’ ability to share their customers’ sensitive personal information.

Standing in front of the White House, activist Jamie Court said Bush was not living up to campaign promises to limit the ability of banks and other financial businesses to trade customers’ Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

Such widespread trafficking in customer details enables identity theft, Court said, brandishing mock-ups of senior government officials’ Social Security cards that he said he bought online.

“How safe is America’s privacy when you can buy the Social Security number of the director of the CIA for $26 on the Internet?” said Court, who heads the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, CA.

Consumer concerns about financial privacy have risen in recent years amid a sharp rise in reported identity-theft incidents — some 750,000 last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Under federal law, consumers can prevent banks and other financial firms from sharing their private account information with third parties. That law, however, does not prevent companies from sharing customer information with affiliates.

California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law Wednesday tougher privacy protections that will allow customers to prevent sharing with affiliates and require businesses to get explicit permission from customers before sharing their accounts with outside parties.

But that law and similar ones in other states could be struck down by an effort to impose a uniform, national standard, which is currently making its way through Congress. Financial-industry lobbyists say such a national standard is needed to keep cheap credit available, and the Bush administration has thrown its support behind the bill.

Such support belies Bush’s campaign promises to strengthen privacy protections, Court said.
White House officials have argued the bill could curb identity theft by making it easier for credit providers to spot suspicious activity on a customer account.

A White House representative did not return a call seeking comment.

Court said he was able to easily obtain the Social Security numbers and home addresses for Attorney General John Ashcroft, Federal Trade Commissioner Chairman Timothy Muris and CIA Director George Tenet, but Bush’s was unavailable.

“He’s a little too famous,” he said.

Consumer Watchdog
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