Group: Washington to Limit Financial Privacy Rights

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WASHINGTON – The federal government is seeking to block states from protecting citizens’ privacy rights, decreasing protections that could prevent would-be criminals from getting valuable information, a California consumer advocate said Wednesday.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, displayed placards of Social Security cards belonging to Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet. He said he was able to purchase Social Security numbers and addresses of Bush administration officials over the Internet.

“How safe is America’s privacy when you can buy the CIA director’s Social Security number for $26?” Court asked at a press conference in front of the White House.

His organization is protesting a bill currently heading to the House floor that would make federal law permanently supersede state law in privacy protection matters. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (search) of 2003 also provides measures for protecting consumer identities, resolving disputes over incorrect consumer information and improving accuracy of consumer records.

But one aspect of the bill to which Court objects is the provision that would make permanent the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which codifies federal rules for privacy of financial records. FCRA, enacted in 1996 will expire on Jan. 1, 2004, if Congress does not act.

Court said FCRA provisions are not strong enough and will prevent states from passing tougher laws.

On Wednesday, California Gov. Gray Davis was signing a tough consumer protection law barring companies from sharing private information with their affiliates or other companies without the consumer’s permission. FCRA protections do not block companies from sharing consumer information with affiliates and would prevent states from doing so.

The Consumer Bankers Association, whose members include most of the nation’s largest bank holding companies as well as regional and supercommunity banks that collectively hold two-thirds of the industry’s total assets, supports the House legislation.

“We think that the bill is terrific,” Marcia Sullivan, director of government relations for CBA, told

Describing the pre-emption clause that gives federal rules dominance over state laws as “one of the best things” in the bill, Sullivan said pre-emption “helps the industry. It gives us the permanence we need so that we can continue to develop technological standards.

“The problem is banking is not only a national business, but a global business. How can we compete when we have this myriad of state laws to deal with in addition to federal laws?” she asked.

Court acknowledged that stricter state laws, such as the one in California, can eat into profits. But, he said, consumers end up on the winning end because state laws could help prevent identity theft, which can cost consumers dearly. Identity theft crimes doubled in 2002 over the previous year.

Court complained that President Bush has failed to fulfill campaign promises to protect consumers’ privacy. Before the 2000 election, Bush called privacy a “fundamental right” and said Americans should have “absolute control” over his or her personal information.

He specifically pledged to ensure that consumers “know how their information is collected, how it will be used, and to accept or decline the collection or dissemination of this information.”

To the dismay of consumer rights groups, the Bush administration supports the continuation of FCRA’s nationwide standards.

“Since [the FCRA’s] passage in 1996, these national standards for consumer credit information have become a pillar of our economy. It is important that the uniform national standards of the Fair Credit Reporting Act be extended and made permanent,” Treasury Secretary John Snow told reporters in June.

Consumer Watchdog
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