Mind your own business

The best way to safeguard personal information? Don't collect it.

The concept of "data minimization" might be easier to understand if you think about it in terms of dieting: You still eat the food you need, but you avoid consuming extra calories you'll have to burn off later.

Government, like many organizations, is a profligate eater of personal information, said John Sabo, a former fed who is now manager of security, privacy and trust initiatives at Computer Associates International.

The Web's ubiquity has "created a culture where we collect everything and then park it and attempt to make use of it later," Sabo said.

That would be fine if government agencies had airtight privacy policies, but that's not the case, he said.

Protocols and mandates, such as the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998, help agencies when they collect data from individuals. But they have no comparable guidelines for collecting personal data that has been amassed by private organizations or businesses.

Worse yet, agency officials often cannot determine the accuracy of secondhand information, Sabo said.

The solution? Agencies should err on the side of privacy and not collect information for which they have no pressing need, he said.

Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed. The good news is that data minimization is an element of the privacy impact assessments that agency officials were required to begin conducting in 2002 for all new data collections.

"If agencies are doing the privacy impact assessments as they're supposed to, they should be addressing those issues at least upfront," he said. "The question is: How is that being put into place later on? The law reads they have to do that every time the system's upgraded."

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