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Senator predicts 'overdue' changes to privacy

Democratic senator whose personal info was lost by Bank of America indicates time is right for reshaping privacy laws.

WASHINGTON--Recent data mishaps at ChoicePoint and Reed Elsevier Group's LexisNexis service could usher in a dramatic reshaping of privacy laws, a U.S. senator predicted.

Vermont's Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary committee, said Wednesday evening that a recent slew of data thefts and other leaks requires a "comprehensive rethinking" of the laws regulating companies that compile electronic dossiers on Americans that are typically purchased by creditors, employers or police.

"It's not a conservative or liberal issue," Leahy said during remarks at the Center for Democracy and Technology's 10th anniversary dinner. "We're going to explore these issues--something that's long overdue."

Leahy hinted that new laws might extend beyond data brokers to affect a broad swath of U.S. companies, which would be akin to proposals that Democrats have attempted without success in the past. The Vermont senator is among the Bank of America customers--more than a million in total--whose personal information was reported lost last month.

"Right now, Congress is focused on the data brokers," said Jerry Berman, CDT's president. "But I think when they begin to think through it, we'll be back (to) the need for more generalized privacy legislation that deals with the commercial, marketing sector as well as risk management functions."

A Senate Banking committee hearing at 11:30 a.m. PST Thursday is titled "Identity Theft: Recent Developments Involving the Security of Sensitive Consumer Information." Leahy and representatives from the U.S. Secret Service, Bank of America and ChoicePoint are scheduled to testify.

What began with the leak of tens of thousands of records from data broker ChoicePoint last month was quickly compounded by a series of rapid-fire incidents involving Bank of America and an online payroll site. An intrusion into Reed Elsevier Group's Seisint database, part of the company's LexisNexis subsidiary, has become the most recent incident that politicians have seized on as a way to justify new regulations in the area.