Personal data travels far

Technology is making it much easier for government agencies to share information, so they are -- including details about your bank accounts, medical complaints and family lives.

Personal information from an electronic application for a student loan, for example, may be transmitted to 10 other government agencies and private entities such as consumer reporting agencies, schools and lawyers.

Financial details from a farm loan application sent to the Agriculture Department may be sent on to 13 other recipients.

And medical records of a government worker seeking compensation for a work-related injury or illness may end up in 18 other locations.

Not surprisingly, "the American public is increasingly concerned about protecting its privacy," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

A privacy study Lieberman ordered shows that government agencies are generally conscientious about following privacy laws, but it also reveals the extended range personal electronic information can travel once it is submitted to a federal agency.

Name and address data may be checked against criminal databases at the Justice Department. Incomes and bank accounts may be compared to tax returns at the Internal Revenue Service. Personal information may be sent to courts, law enforcement agencies, even the U.S. Postal Service, according to a study by the General Accounting Office.

Personal data may also be sent to commercial collection agencies, financial consultants, health care providers, labor unions and parties involved in litigation.

The practice of sharing information so widely increases the risk that information will be misused and an individual's privacy will be violated, Lieberman said Oct. 30 when he released the GAO report. A provision in Lieberman's E-Government Act of 2002 would require federal agencies to consider the impact new technology would have on privacy before they can buy it.

"As the federal government updates its technology so that information may be compiled and accessed more readily, we must reassure the public that its privacy will be respected and protected," Lieberman said.

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