Group gets private data on Tenet, Ashcroft to underscore need for tougher laws

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The Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON (AP) — Almost everything is for sale on the Internet — even the Social Security numbers of top government officials like CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft, consumer advocates warned Wednesday.

The California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said for $26 each it was able to purchase the Social Security numbers and home addresses for Tenet, Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials, including Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser.

That illustrates the need for stronger protections of personal information, the group said.

Specifically, the foundation is concerned about legislation in the House that would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., and dozens of other members, aims to prevent identity theft and improve the accuracy of consumer records, among other things.

While backing the overall goals of the bill, the group’s executive director, Jamie Court, objected to a portion of it that would continue a current pre-emption of tougher state privacy laws.

California Gov. Gray Davis signed such legislation Wednesday, which allows consumers to block companies from sharing personal information with affiliate businesses.

“Banks and insurers should not be able to go to Washington as an end-run around the most protective state privacy laws,” Court said.

The Bush administration has urged Congress to act quickly to strengthen the nation’s credit laws and has praised the House bill. It is expected to come up for a vote in the first few weeks after lawmakers return from their August recess.

A spokesman for Bachus, Evan Keefer, said the legislation has important new provisions that will be tough on fraud. He said the issue raised by the foundation is something lawmakers would look at in conference, after votes in the House and Senate.

The foundation wants to see a strong national law on credit reporting, but Court said that should not preclude states from passing even stronger privacy protections.

He said stopping trafficking of information among corporate affiliates is key because some companies have hundreds of businesses under the family umbrella. For example, a banking corporation might have a number of insurance, securities and real estate affiliates it does business with and financial data might be swapped among all.

“If you cannot stop the traffic of your information among corporate affiliates, you don’t have privacy in this nation,” Court said.

In addition to Social Security numbers, Court said some online sites will give out a person’s bank account balance for about $300.

Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse based in San Diego, said there are at least a dozen sites that provide social security numbers and other private data.

“If you’re willing to spend a little money, you can get this type of information very easily on the Internet,” said Givens.

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