Lawsuit questions agency info buying

Privacy advocates last week filed a lawsuit to force six federal agencies to disclose details about their practice of buying information about individuals from commercial databases.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center said the agencies illegally failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests for details about their information buying practices, which, EPIC charges, may violate provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974.

In documents filed in federal court Jan. 15, EPIC said at least 35 agencies buy personal information from commercial database companies. The agencies may be prohibited from collecting the same information for themselves, EPIC lawyers said. Among other restrictions, the Privacy Act limits agencies to collecting only the information that is relevant to agency needs. The act also restricts agencies from sharing information with one another and grants citizens the right to view and correct any information agencies have collected about them.

Commercial databases, by contrast, are subject to few restrictions. Information brokers such as ChoicePoint Inc. gather personal data from a vast array of commercial and government sources, such as property records, motor vehicle records, marriage licenses, divorce filings, bankruptcy and other court databases, loan applications and even product warranty registrations.

The information is used for purposes as varied as employment background checks and product marketing. One information supplier to government agencies, Experian, boasts data gathered from "hundreds of public and proprietary sources" on 215 million consumers.

EPIC wants details on information buying by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Justice and Treasury departments, parent agencies of the six, declined to comment on the suit.

A key concern for privacy advocates is whether the information agencies are buying is accurate, said EPIC's legislative counsel, Chris Hoofnagle. Data that ChoicePoint sold to Florida election officials was used to deny thousands of voters access to the polls in 2000. State election officials later determined that the data was "very inaccurate."

Hoofnagle said EPIC has obtained documents showing that the IRS has agreements with both ChoicePoint and Experian to provide tax agency employees with access to commercial databases through IRS desktop computers.

Without knowing more about what data agencies are buying and how they use it, "we don't know if the agencies are violating the law," Hoofnagle said. "But the spirit of the Privacy Act was to reduce the government's collection of data."

EPIC may find that the agencies are not violating any law, said Peter Swire, who was President Clinton's privacy adviser and is a law professor at Ohio State University. "The Privacy Act focuses on disclosure" and does not set limits on how agencies can acquire information.

The Justice Department has 30 days to respond to the suit.

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