A wallet-size wealth of data

For marketers, ever hungry for scraps of information to identify potential

buyers, a driver's license is a veritable feast.

Besides a name and accurate address — ideal for mailings — it has age

and gender information, a bit of medical data, a ZIP code that can tell

something about a person's income, often a Social Security number and usually

a photo.

There is a big market for such data. Organizations and individuals

from political fund-raisers to telemarketers will pay for it, and until

recently, most states were happy to sell it, sometimes with phone numbers

and other information included.

In January, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a 1994 law prohibiting

such sales is constitutional. Three states, South Carolina, Wisconsin and

Oklahoma had challenged the 1994 Drivers' Privacy Protection Act.

The ruling was applauded by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who included

legislation in this year's transportation funding bill that required states

to stop selling driver's license data without getting the license holder's


"It is a violation of the public trust for state governments to compel

citizens to reveal their private information and then sell it to outsiders

for profit," Shelby said after the Jan. 12 Supreme Court ruling.

"The department of motor vehicles has a legitimate reason to collect

that information, but it has no legitimate reason to sell it," said Andrew

Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Information service and marketing companies could use DMV information

along with other databases in data mining operations to produce detailed

profiles of individuals.

"Once personal information hits the private sector, there are no limits

on what the information can be used for," Shen said. It's often used for

sales. But, "once its starts it's a slippery slope. Who knows where it will

pop up," he said.

Shen and other privacy advocates say the court's ruling and Shelby's

legislation are signs of a growing backlash against improper uses of personal

information in the Information Age. "I am optimistic that growing concern

about privacy will lead to protections to curb it," he said.

But there is also pressure to move in the opposite direction. Data mining

maverick MicroStrategy Inc. is urging the Clinton administration to sell

vast federal databases to private data mining companies.

In the hands of the private sector, MicroStrategy contends, government

data could be used for a wide range of purposes, from developing better

ways to deliver health care to finding better ways to curb crime.


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