Privacy advocates strike back at lawmakers

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Partial Social Security numbers of Assembly members who rejected disclosure limits posted on Internet

Santa Rosa Press-Democrat (California)

A high-stakes legislative battle over financial privacy legislation intensified this week when a consumer group published partial Social Security numbers of some state lawmakers on the Internet.

Revealing the numbers, a move that came after the legislation was killed for the fourth straight year, sparked an angry response from lawmakers, led by Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa.

“This is very serious,” she said. “This is retaliation. There is no excuse for extorting legislators for their votes.”

Backers of the legislation, which would give people greater control over personal financial data, offered no apologies.

“This is all about politicians not caring enough about privacy until their privacy is at issue,” said Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights.

He said the group paid $26 to obtain the Social Security numbers for four Democrats and four Republicans who abstained or voted against the bill Tuesday in the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee.

The group listed the first four digits of their Social Security numbers on its Web site under the headline: “No financial privacy for Californians, none for politicians who stop bill.”

Wiggins, who is chairwoman of the banking committee, voted for the bill, so her Social Security number wasn’t posted. But she fired off a letter to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson asking if any action could be taken against Court.

“They did this in relationship to a legislator’s vote,” she said. “That’s pretty specific and pretty direct. I think it’s very reckless and probably illegal.”

Court said lawmakers needed a wake-up call on the issue.

“Now they care,” he said Thursday. “Now they realize how personal it is. If she feels threatened, it’s by the system that allows this information to be available so freely.”

His group is pressing for legislation by state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Daly City, that would prohibit banks, insurers and other financial services companies from sharing Social Security numbers and other information without prior written approval from the affected individuals. It would go further than federal law requiring consumers to contact companies and request that they don’t share financial information.

Wiggins said the consumer group’s move could backfire and keep the measure from getting legislative approval and the governor’s signature.

The group also posted the first three digits of Gov. Gray Davis‘ Social Security number on a mock baseball card.

“It didn’t work. It made it worse instead of better for the issue,” said Wiggins, adding that the bill is likely to come up for a reconsideration vote within two weeks.

But Court said the commit-tee’s vote is a clear indication that the best chance to get privacy protections into state law is by qualifying an initiative for a statewide ballot.

Responding to allegations that his group was trying to extort lawmakers, Court said the Social Security numbers were posted after the committee vote and without the group making direct calls to legislators in an attempt to sway votes.

“There’s nothing dishonest here,” he said. “They’re taking away the wrong message.”
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or [email protected]

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