Task Force Ponders Privacy

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An independent agency devoted to regulating and enforcing privacy law could be created to deal with personal information security in a wired world, a presidential task force suggested in an options paper released last week.

Alternatively, each federal department and agency could establish its own privacy office or designate a "privacy advocate" to make sure agencies consider what effects their actions have on privacy concerns, the paper said.

The president's information age advisory panel, the National Information Infrastructure Task Force, conducted a study of how the country's growing reliance on computers and computer networks will affect people's personal privacy. The study also looked at how the federal government should be involved in the privacy debate.

As information technology has made it easy for the private sector and the government to share databases with sensitive information about people, such as their medical histories and financial records, privacy advocates have become increasingly concerned that agencies and companies are sharing personal data with third parties without people's consent.

Congress has responded by enacting numerous laws to limit how much both the government and the private sector disseminate sensitive data. Federal agencies must comply with the Privacy Act, the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and statutes like the Tax Reform Act of 1976, which prohibits unauthorized disclosure of tax returns.

Critics argue that those laws haven't worked as intended.

"The federal system of data protection, though comprehensive, is criticized, however, as a 'paper tiger' with significant enforcement and remedial deficiencies," the study said.

The task force came up with an array of options, from simply having the government toughen its review and enforcement of the laws that govern privacy matters to setting up a new federal agency to deal with privacy issues.

Those who argue for a new agency say the present reactive, industry-by-industry method of confronting privacy concerns is inadequate in an age when sensitive information is increasingly easy to access. A new agency would be able to focus solely on protecting personal privacy, whereas privacy currently competes with other federal concerns.

The task force noted, however, that it is unlikely the Clinton administration or Congress would support creating a new agency at a time of government downsizing.

"It is likely that any effort to create a new regulatory body to enforce fair information practices would face considerable public resistance at this time," the options paper said.

The task force is seeking public comment on its options paper, which is available on its Web site.

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