GAO: Agencies share data despite laws

Information Management: Selected Agencies' Handling of Personal Information

Technology is making it 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 to 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.

"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 reveals the distances that personal information can travel once it is submitted to a federal agency.

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

The practice of sharing information widely increases the risk that information will be misused and privacy will be violated, Lieberman said Oct. 30 when the GAO report was released.

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