Forbes slams IT programs

In a broadside against electronic information gathering by the federal government, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes last week warned that databases containing personal medical information, employment and income data and other sensitive information are an increasing threat to personal privacy.

Forbes said the government is planning data systems that would collect information on individuals' health, travel, jobs, spending habits, school performance and other personal particulars that he said it has no right to collect. It is "a brazen and dangerous assault on privacy and freedom of the American people," Forbes told the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

The most invasive plan is one developed by the Clinton administration to create "a massive, centralized national health care database" and assign "a unique health identifier — an identification number — to every man, woman and child in the United States," Forbes said.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, is developing "a battery of regulations" that would enable the government to "electronically tag, track and monitor your personal medical information and make it available without your consent to other government agencies, public health officials, researchers, law enforcement agencies, courts, lawyers and even employers," Forbes said.

Officials at HHS responded to Forbes' assertions, saying protecting privacy is one of their top priorities. This fall, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala proposed national standards to control sensitive patient information and establish penalties for its misuse.

The standards are aimed at a wide range of organizations that keep and use medical records, including health care providers, insurance companies, and state and local agencies. But the agency's authority to protect records is limited, HHS officials said. The Clinton administration has urged Congress to enact comprehensive privacy protections, but so far, Congress has not done so, an HHS spokeswoman said.

Forbes also cited another information collection system being developed by the Health Care Financing Administration as intrusive. The system, named the Outcome and Assessment Information Set (OASIS), would require "nearly 10,000 home health care agencies nationwide to transmit sensitive medical information into a government database," Forbes said.

Along with other data, HCFA would collect information on individuals' medical histories, personal characteristics, race, living conditions, financial data and behavior, Forbes said.

Health care providers would report whether individuals exhibited signs of depression or suicidal tendencies and whether they used profanity or included sexual references in their conversations, he said.

According to HCFA, OASIS is used to collect information needed to monitor the quality of home health care, which the agency is legally required to do.

Forbes also attacked Census Bureau information gathering. He said Census has expanded its numerating mandate to include collecting data on peoples' finances and living conditions. "It is none of their business," Forbes said.

If elected, Forbes promised to screen all legislation for its impact on privacy before signing it, block programs that compromise medical privacy, and stop Census from amassing huge databases of information.

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