U.S. out of our database: ACLU requests hearing
February 24, 1999
The ACLU – in tandem with the Free Congress Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America and the Electronic Privacy Information Center – sent a letter last Wednesday to leaders of the Government Reform Committee in Congress.
In the letter, the groups "respectfully request that you hold a committee hearing on the threat to privacy and civil liberties posed by the abuse and authorized misuse of federal databases. We are concerned about proposals that the federal government use database information, initially gathered for one purpose, for completely unrelated purposes, without the consent of the person to whom the data relates."
According to the ACLU, the letter was sent after the Washington Post reported Congressional approval of nearly $1.5 million in federal aid and technical assistance to Nashua, N.H.-based Image Data for the development of a national license photograph database. The government approved the aid hoping law-enforcement officials could use the database in terrorism, immigration and "identity crime" cases, according to the news report.
The ACLU also has asked Congress to strengthen the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act of 1994, which it calls "loophole-ridden." The organization charges that the law has failed in preventing the selling or disclosing of information about drivers without their consent.
ACLU Washington National Office Director Laura W. Murphy, who signed the letter on behalf of the organization, said the aim is to have "greater bipartisan oversight into the federal government's role in protecting the privacy rights of American citizens."
No government committee currently has oversight on privacy issues, Murphy said. "The right to privacy is not a distinct right; it's one that's drawn from a variety of Constitutional amendments," she said. "And Congress doesn't treat it with the same level of concern as it does, or used to, with other rights."
The basic problem, Murphy said, is not in the creation of databases, but in how they are used. "Every time a new database is proposed, it's presented as a practical solution to a compelling problem, like a DNA database that's proposed to make it easier to catch criminals," she said. "They all sound like a good idea, but inevitably they always get flipped into use for another purpose, and the end result is that there's no privacy left. And there's no one in Congress connecting the dots and no one keeping Congress to its commitment to prevent use of the databases for other purposes."
The letter came during a month of controversy in a number of states that sold driver's license information to Image Data. They include South Carolina, where a citizen has brought a class-action lawsuit against the state charging violation of privacy rights, and Florida, where the governor canceled the state's contract with Image Data after an ACLU campaign there.
According to the ACLU, states have sold thousands of their license files for a penny apiece. "For the government to prostitute our private information is bad enough," ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said in a statement. "And to charge only a penny for our privacy adds insult to injury."
Image Data could not be reached for comment.
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