Agency information sharing sparks privacy concerns

Federal agencies are increasingly swapping citizens' personal information, according to a new report from an online privacy think tank. A survey of data sharing between federal agencies conducted by Privacilla.org, a public policy Web site advocating privacy, concluded that agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the IRS are increasing the ways they share citizens' personal information. "From September 1999 to February 2001, federal agencies announced 47 times [in the Federal Register] that they would exchange and merge personal information from databases about American citizens. And these programs are only the tip of an information-trading iceberg," said the report. Agencies can share citizens' personal data, including names, birth dates and Social Security information, to avoid overpayments and other errors when processing benefits. But the 1974 Privacy Act and the 1988 Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act restricted agencies' power to share citizens' personal information. Under the 1988 act, agencies must enter into information sharing agreements designed to protect citizens' privacy. Agency data integrity boards review the agreements, and agencies must publish their intent to disclose public information in the Federal Register. According to Jeremy Cox, a senior analyst at the General Accounting Office, GAO has supported information sharing between federal agencies as a way to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in government. "We think it is an efficient use of time and taxpayer dollars for federal agencies to engage in computer matching people who are applying for certain benefits, such as student loans or public assistance," said Cox. Jim Harper, author of Privacilla.org's privacy report, acknowledged the benefits of data sharing among agencies, but also voiced concern over well-known, and well-documented, security lapses in agencies' computer systems. "In times of political turmoil, large databases of personal information on citizens can be abused badly," said Harper. Cox said agencies conduct most information sharing on people who apply for certain government benefits. For example, if a veteran applies for benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department and the Social Security Administration, the two agencies need to share information with each other to avoid errors in granting the applicant's benefits. Without such information sharing, benefits could be duplicated and taxpayer dollars wasted, said Cox. "The goal is to make sure the right person gets the right amount of money to which he or she is entitled," said Cox. Other types of data sharing occur when agencies' missions overlap. For example, the Social Security Administration and the IRS frequently share tax information because the two agencies are responsible for administering programs that are connected to one another: the Social Security Act and the tax code. Harper said the design of most government programs does not give citizens the option of withholding personal information, and said "future programs need to be considered in light of privacy implications." Although Cox said GAO was very sensitive to privacy concerns, he noted that no panacea exists for security in every instance. He emphasized that the purpose of data sharing was to promote efficiency and accuracy in federal agencies and ensure the government's ability to deliver services to the public, not create a database of every citizen's dark secrets. "The function of information sharing between agencies is to promote efficiency and accuracy in government. Of course, the specter of Big Brother is something we need to be sensitive to-that's why we have the Privacy Act and the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act," said Cox.
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