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Privacy bills stampede on Hill

A slew of proposals have emerged from Congress to clamp down on the availability of Social Security numbers on the Internet.

In response to heightened fears over online privacy, a slew of proposals have emerged from Congress to clamp down on the availability of Social Security numbers on the Internet.

The bills follow a national backlash over online privacy that arose last week on the Social Security Administration's Web site. The agency pulled a short-lived feature that allowed surfers to look up their salary information, records of taxes paid to Social Security or Medicare, and eligibility for benefits.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the Personal Information Privacy Act, which limits the commercial use of Social Security numbers, unlisted telephone numbers, and other personal information on or off the Net.

While introducing the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, Feinstein said the growth of Net has led to wide distribution of personal and private information.

"These records can be disseminated around the world in seconds," she said. "In fact, I found that my own Social Security number was accessible to users on the Internet. My staff retrieved it in less than three minutes."

Rep. Tom Barrett (D-Wisconsin) has also introduced the Federal Internet Privacy Protection Act. The bill would prohibit federal agencies from making available online individuals' records on education, financial transactions, medical history, or employment history that contain the name, an identifying number, or symbol assigned to individuals. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.

In addition, two initiatives were introduced Tuesday. Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Connecticut) submitted the Social Security Information Safeguards Act to require the Commissioner of Social Security to create a panel of experts to develop safeguards to ensure confidentiality of personal Social Security records made accessible online. Kennelly's bill now sits in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The second bill would prohibit federal officers and employees from providing access to Social Security account information, personal earnings and benefits estimates, or tax return information of an individual through the Net without written consent. Rep. Paul Kanjorski's (D-Pennsylvania) bill also calls for the creation by President Bill Clinton and the Senate of a nine-member commission on privacy of government records.

Cracking down on electronic information brokers would be difficult, Feinstein conceded.

"One problem thwarting efforts to protect our citizens' privacy is that there are thousands of information providers on the Internet and elsewhere in the electronic arena. It is impossible to get a comprehensive picture of who is doing what and where," she said. "Our private lives are becoming commodities with tremendous value in the marketplace."

The Feinstein-Grassley bill says no person may buy, sell, or exchange an individual's Social Security number without that person's written consent. Under the proposed law, people may sue for up to $25,000 in damages if their numbers are given out without permission or for as much as $50,000 if the violation results in a monetary gain.

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.

Also, Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey) reintroduced the Social Security Online Privacy Protection Act last week, which prohibits online services and other Internet sites from disclosing Social Security numbers to third parties without written consent.