Sunday Age (Melbourne)
LOS ANGELES — A consumer advocate has embarrassed the Bush Administration by announcing his purchase on a website of the social security numbers of three of its most powerful men, including the head of the CIA. The cost: $US26 ($A40) each.
It is a provocative protest against what more Americans are viewing as breaches of citizen privacy through the exploitation of the numbers (known as SSNs) to compile electronic dossiers on citizens for corporate profit.
Jamie Court, head of the Los Angeles-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, revealed on a national radio network last week that he had the SSNs of CIA chief George Tenet, attorney-general John Ashcroft and President Bush‘s closest adviser, Karl Rove. “It was a deliberate demonstration of how easy these are to obtain,” Mr. Court told The Sunday Age.
He also outraged California politicians by publishing part of the SSNs of eight members of the state banking committee who killed a consumer protection bill forcing banks to get permission before selling customers’ financial details.
In a wild-west “wanted” poster on his foundation’s website, Mr. Court posted the first four digits of their SSNs. “I wanted to show their hypocrisy. They don’t care about citizens’ privacy rights but howl when they think theirs are infringed. The point is how easy they are to obtain,” he said.
The enraged California lawmakers ordered a police investigation into the foundation and a “special protocol committee” is investigating whether Mr. Court infringed a state edict against “intimidating” politicians to influence their vote.
The nine-digit SSNs became law in 1938 as a voluntary national contributory pension scheme. In the past 20 years, institutions from banks to bureaucracies have demanded the number for increasing transactions, despite the lack of any public debate or passage of law legitimising the system.
While ordinary Americans submit to this unofficial national ID number, resentment grows over increasing corporate dissemination of economic profiles for profit, in which details of citizens’ buying habits, based on their SSN numbers, are sold without their knowledge.
For a relatively modest fee, at least four US websites provide an astonishing list of information about citizens, including their assets, bank balances, medical, credit card and driving records, bankruptcies, and their marriages and divorces.
“The key is the SSN,” said Mr. Court. “Once you have that you can compile a detailed purchasing profile of any individual and then you can sell it. It’s a $US900-million industry and astonishingly profitable.”
This weekend, Mr. Court’s foundation secured enough signatures for a referendum on the California ballot in March asking for a majority vote forcing corporations to get permission before they sell citizens’ private details. Big business will spend millions fighting it.