Congressmen Form Caucus on Citizen Privacy

By Ben Anderson | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

Washington ( - In light of a growing concern over personal privacy issues involving medical, financial and computer data, four congressmen Thursday formed the first privacy caucus targeting corporate and government initiatives likely to affect individual privacy.

The privacy caucus so far consists of one Democrat and one Republican from both the House and Senate, making it a bi-partisan, bi-cameral caucus including Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV).

The caucus intends to address privacy concerns involved with financial, medical and Internet issues.

Deirdre Mulligan, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology, said she is encouraged by the formation of a caucus focused on privacy issues.

"This is obviously a turning point when congressional Members look at privacy issues, that they are listening to their constituents," Mulligan said, adding that those taking the lead in forming such a caucus "played a very big role" in getting some privacy provisions inserted into the financial modernization bill last year.

Shelby raised his own concerns and that of his three co-chairs over the banking modernization bill which he contends "allows financial institutions to buy, sell and trade an individual's personal nonpublic financial information almost at will."

"I am proud to tell you that the four of us standing up here today all opposed the passage of financial modernization because of the significant lack of privacy protections," Shelby said.

The Congressional Privacy Caucus aims to address such privacy issues when legislation appears to allow exposure of personally identifiable private information.

Shelby said the privacy caucus will serve to notify other members when private companies and governmental agencies collect, use and disclose personally identifiable information.

Additionally, the caucus will seek to allow individual access to personal information and the ability to correct erroneous information. Bureaucracies and private businesses, according to caucus members, should receive "affirmative consent before disclosing an individual's personally identifiable information" to a third party.

Caucus members also insist that federal privacy protections must not preempt stronger state privacy protections.

As individual privacy issues tend to cut across many ideological and political lines, the fact that these four individual congressmen have come together around a single cause is significant they admit.

"There are few issues that can unite a liberal Democratic congressman from Massachusetts like myself with a conservative Republican senator from Alabama and a conservative congressman from Texas," Markey said. "But this privacy issue cuts across partisan and ideological lines."

"Americans want to be left alone. They don't want Big Brother looking over their shoulder and they don't want big business snooping into their personal lives," Markey added. "The problem is that while existing laws provide some minimal protections against governmental intrusions into personal privacy, the safeguards against corporations prying into our family secrets range are either inadequate or nonexistent."

"The more Americans know about the extent that their personal privacy is being compromised in this new mass information age, the more concerned they will become," Barton said. "Here in D.C., privacy is generally thought of in terms of business or financial matters, but it is all areas of Americans' personal privacy that are at risk."

"Americans would never allow a stranger at their front door access to the level of personal, private information about them that is being let out through the 'cyber' door," Barton added. "As the Internet continues to expand into all areas of our everyday lives, it is of the utmost importance that we protect access to the most private financial, medical and personal information of our citizens."

"It is the consumer that should be the gatekeeper and guardian to their own financial and other personal info information, not the banks, insurance companies and other institutions," Bryan said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case today."

"Every consumer should know that, under current law, their most personal information, such as bank and health records are being passed around corporate America like a bag of Halloween candy."

"Consumers have a right to know that banks and other institutions are routinely selling their home addresses, their phone numbers and even their social security and credit card numbers to third-party telemarketing firms and even criminals in some cases," Bryan said.