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Senators stall on privacy

Under conflicting pressures from the public and information brokers, three Senators ask the FTC for more study on data privacy laws.

Three Senators have rejected recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommendations on consumer data privacy laws and are now asking for further study.

Squeezed between angry constituents who have complained about the controversial Lexis-Nexis P-Trak service which provides information about private individuals to subscribers and information brokers outraged by the FTC's bid to strengthen privacy laws, Sen. Richard Bryan, (D-Nevada) Sen. Larry Pressler, (R-South Dakota), and Sen. Ernest Hollings, (D-South Carolina) have chosen not to decide on how to protect consumer privacy, at least not now.

In a letter to FTC director Robert Pitofsky, the three gave the agency six months to produce a report. The study will cover whether covert information gathering is a violation of civil rights, whether databases of consumer information are used to perpetrate crimes, whether these databases violate existing federal laws, and whether consumers have any way to prevent covert information gathering.

The FTC had already recommended last month that the Fair Credit Reporting Act be amended to provide confidentiality for maiden names, Social Security numbers, prior addresses, and dates of birth, in response to a request from Sen. Bryan and others. But that kind of direct action made the Senators uncomfortable.

"The FTC's recommendations were too controversial," according to Andy Vermilye, legislative director for Sen. Bryan. "The business community was up in arms. They use that information for verification, for legitimate uses."

Some consumer advocates are skeptical that the Senate will ever pursue more stringent electronic privacy protections.

"At some point we'll get a single member of Congress who will be a real advocate for consumer privacy rights, something we don't have now," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. "I'm heartened that they think there's a reason to make even a symbolic gesture" on the subject, he added.

FTC officials declined to comment on the Senators' letter or their apparent rejection of the agency's recommendations. "They've asked us to produce a study and we will," said Victoria Strietfield, an FTC spokeswoman.