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Lawmakers address online privacy

The House continues its efforts to batten down the online hatches on Social Security numbers.

Congress has jumped into regulate the Net again after backlash over online privacy hit home on the Social Security Administration's Web site.

The ability to learn and collect personal information instantaneously through the Net has been a hot issue recently for federal agencies and legislatures who say surfers' privacy is too easily invaded.

In January, a bill was introduced to stop online services from giving out subscriber information. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission announced yet another investigation into Net privacy.

The latest move comes from Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey) who reintroduced the Social Security Online Privacy Protection Act on Thursday. The bill died already in Congress's last session but Franks hopes last week's furor over the Social Security Web site will revive interest in the legislation.

The bill prohibits online services and other Internet sites from disclosing Social Security numbers to a third parties without written consent. It also states that "such service shall permit an individual to revoke any consent granted pursuant to [the service] at any time, and upon such revocation such service shall cease disclosing such number or information to a third party."

The arrival of the bill comes after the Social Security Administration ended a short-lived feature on its Web site, which allowed surfers to look up their salary information, record of taxes paid to Social Security or Medicare, and the benefits for which that person is eligible.

Although the agency said that the service protected the information from eyes that shouldn't see it, it acknowledged that there was a huge public perception that the information would be broadcast on the Net.

"We reintroduced the bill in light of this new information about the Social Security site," said Frank DiStefano, who is Rep. Franks's aide. "We thought it was more proof that the numbers are something we need to protect for the public because they are the key to so much information that can be used for fraud or to hurt people."

Examples of private data being broadcast on the Net have been publicized with each new effort from the government to clamp down on the spread of such activity. Often consumers willingly give up personal statistics in order to get a service over the Net. In some cases, however, people are surprised to find their vital statistics scattered in cyberspace.

Earlier this year, some well-known billionaires such as Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner didn't know their Social Security numbers were readily accessible online through documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (See related story.)

The FTC said last month that it will launch a study and hold hearings on "look-up services" that contain what consumers may consider sensitive identifying information, which may include Social Security numbers, current and prior addresses, and dates of birth. In January, the FTC also issued a report that said online companies will have to be more aggressive about protecting personal privacy online to foster growth in electronic commerce.

And last year, legislators called for regulation in reaction to a controversy over the Lexis-Nexis P-Track service, which releases some private information over the Internet to its subscribers.

Privacy advocates say Franks's bill gives federal lawmakers a shot at discussing online privacy issues. Another bill, the Consumer Internet Privacy Protection Act, was already introduced in early January by Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minnesota) and would make it illegal for online service providers to give out subscriber information without their consent.

"We think that the introduction of legislation in this area is important," David Sobel, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center said today. "There needs to be a congressional review of these practices. What is good about the introduction of [Franks's] bill is that it provides a framework for the issue to be examined."

The recent controversy over the Social Security Web site is proof, Sobel added, that online privacy issues need to be a top priority for Congress.

"The Social Security site was a well-intended service," he said. "However, because in general there are of all these unintended, unnecessary uses of numbers, there is now nothing about the Social Security number that provides you with any type of security. This needs to be addressed."