New York Considers Privacy Package

In what may be the most comprehensive state effort yet to protect consumers from privacy violations that result from the use of computer, network and other modern technology, the New York State Assembly late last week passed part of a comprehensive legislative package aimed at safeguarding residents against identity theft, financial loss, damaged credit ratings and discrimination.

The New York Senate is expected to present its own privacy package later this summer.

"All of us are growing more and more dependent on new technology, and as this technology that provides convenience and drives our economy continues to grow and change, we must ensure that the laws keep pace," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who presented the package along with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. "The Internet, DNA advances and the widespread selling of information are potential threats to all New Yorkers. In some cases, the privacy invasion results in nuisance problems. In others, people have lost significant amounts of money or fallen victim to violence."

The bills, all of which resulted from hearings held last year on the issue of privacy and technology and which were sponsored by various assembly members, provide for a variety of cures, including:

Legal recourse for individuals who have their identities stolen.

A temporary commission to study the condition of personal privacy in light of today's fast-changing technologies and to study how best to protect that privacy.

Requiring the DMV to get express consent from registrants before selling their personal information.

Prohibiting state agencies from disclosing people's photographs.

Prohibiting the sale of e-mail addresses without the user's consent.

Requiring state agencies to adopt Internet private policies.

"This legislation seeks to curb the rising threat that modern life poses to our private lives," said assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, chairwoman of the Assembly Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee, who sponsored several of the bills.

New York officials believe the package is the most comprehensive yet to be proposed in the 50 states, but Silver noted that the Assembly will continue to examine privacy issues and legislate when necessary. The Assembly Health Committee is expected to begin holding hearing on health care privacy in the near future.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee met this morning to begin determining how much personal information is collected over the Internet and for what purposes. The committee also was to examine whether the Internet industry is policing itself well enough to continue on without government intervention.

Additionally, the committee was to take a hard look at the European Union's comprehensive protection of the online privacy rights of consumers.

Among the witnesses who testified today were Jill Lesser, vice president of domestic public policy for America Online Inc.; Christine Varney, chairwoman of the Online Privacy Alliance; Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology; and Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

-- Heather Hayes

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