Wired Magazine (Wired.com)
A privacy group hired a skywriter to write part of the Social Security number of Citigroup’s chief executive above New York City on Friday, protesting the bank’s lobbying efforts to keep lawmakers from tightening privacy regulations and demonstrating that even the privacy of bank executives is at risk.
Working during a break in cloud cover, an airplane scrawled the first five digits of CEO Charles Prince’s Social Security number in 15-story numerals above Citigroup’s global headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights called attention to the bank’s backing of a Senate bill that would prevent states from protecting consumers’ privacy.
The National Consumer Credit Reporting System Improvement Act is up for renewal. Some business-friendly legislators are trying to amend it to prevent states from enacting or enforcing laws that would bar companies from exchanging the personal information of customers with affiliates. California recently passed a bill that bans exactly that practice.
Backers of the revised Senate bill — primarily financial institutions — argue that the credit act lets banks offer cheaper services to customers. Opponents say it puts the sensitive information of millions of people in too many hands and increases the risk of identity theft and other fraud.
Jamie Court, Executive Director of FTCR, said the group wanted to call particular attention to Citigroup for presenting two faces to the public.
“Citigroup has gotten off pretty easy for advertising that it protects peoples’ privacy, when in fact it has been not only sharing information among its many affiliates, but also spending $4.6 million lobbying in the first half of this year on this bill,” Court said. “Their customers have to know that all those ATM fees they’re paying are going to work against them. Citigroup has to face the fact that if they keep this up … there’s a good chance that one day they may face a boycott.”
A Citigroup spokeswoman, when reached by phone, said she would call back and comment within an hour. She had not called back by the time of publication.
Court said that senators are increasingly leaning toward the consumers’ side in recent weeks and he felt there was a good chance the Democrats would lead a filibuster on Tuesday when the act comes up for vote.
FTCR purchased Prince’s SSN for $26 on the Internet, in the same manner they recently purchased the Social Security numbers of CIA director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft. The group didn’t put those numbers in the sky, due to restrictions under the Patriot Act that protect federal officials from “intimidation.”
Court said they purchased the number a couple of months ago but were watching what would happen with the Washington bill. The plane released the number at about 11 a.m.
“We’d been trying to do this for two days but there’s been too much cloud cover,” he said. “In fact the clouds closed about 25 minutes after the demonstration. It was almost as though the will was there from the heavens.”
Court defended the tactic.
“There are no current privacy protections to speak of and that’s why we need to allow states to pass stronger laws, and this federal bill is a disaster for states’ rights,” said Court. “Officials should recognize that the bill would have an impact on them personally.”
The group focused on Citigroup in particular for its dishonesty, Court said. When it became apparent earlier this summer that the California legislature was going to pass a privacy protection bill with overwhelming public support, Citigroup said it supported the California bill. But after passage, the bank’s lobbyist immediately went to Washington to lobby for a bill that would cancel the California legislation.
“This is an attack on California and our financial privacy law. The banks agreed to let the California law take effect to head off a ballot initiative from voters. Then they went to Washington to preempt the California law. Banks are being very dishonest in their approach. They should either accept the California standards or not, but don’t agree in one place and then go fight us in another.”
Court commended Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein for lobbying against the Senate bill among fellow Democrats. He said he believed the two senators had taken particular umbrage over the bank’s two-step dance in California.
“We feel it’s very disingenuous that the financial institutions were supportive of the legislation in California,” said Howard Gantman, spokesman for Sen. Feinstein. “They were involved in negotiations with Jackie Speier (the California legislator who spearheaded the passage of the California bill) and they came to an agreement with her to support it. It’s very troubling that on one side they agreed with California officials then immediately came back to Washington to preempt them.”
Gantman added, “We believe that the legislation as currently crafted would be a major step back in terms of ensuring the privacy rights to individuals and helping to protect them from identity theft.”