Privacy fears prompt study, delay

Few things can match the Internet for fast growth, but the growing alarm about privacy is surely one of them.

Polls show that 83 percent of Americans fear they have lost control over how companies use their private information. And in response, state legislatures across the nation are considering 2,000 to 3,000 privacy bills.

Now Congress is offering to help. The House of Representatives is considering legislation to create a privacy commission to study the issue for 18 months.

But 18 months of study will only delay action on privacy and security, said John Spotila, the Clinton administration's information technology policy-maker in chief, speaking to a House subcommittee Monday.

"In some areas, we already know that we must act swiftly to protect privacy and security," he said. "Indeed, the administration's biggest concern is the risk that some might use the commission as a reason to delay much-needed privacy legislation."

Meaningful legislation is needed to protect the privacy of personal financial information and medical records and to prevent genetic discrimination, Spotila told the House Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee. "We cannot take a year and a half off in protecting Americans' privacy," he said.

The federal government has been studying privacy at least since 1993, Spotila noted. But when Congress has acted on privacy, it has done too little, he said. Legislation passed last year to protect financial privacy left many loopholes.

Mike Hatch, the attorney general of Minnesota, was more blunt. Congress' record on privacy protection is not good. For example, when Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which was touted as protecting financial privacy, it actually gave banks more authority to trade in consumers' financial information than ever before, he said.

Congress failed to meet an August 1999 deadline for passing medical records privacy legislation, leaving it to the Department of Health and Human Services to propose regulations. The HHS regulations generated 53,000 comments that the agency must review before announcing final rules, Spotila said.

On the matter of genetic discrimination, President Clinton has banned federal agencies from considering genetic information in hiring or promotions, Spotila said, but legislation that would apply such rules to the private sector remains hung up in Congress.

There is a "need for further action, not further study," he said.

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