PRIVACY PROTECTION IN THE INFORMATION AGE
Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN)
May 25, 2001
Every citizen in Tennessee and across America has a right to his or her privacy. However, in these times of rapidly changing technology, people are uncertain and fearful about who has access to their personal information and how that information is being used. In fact, a recent poll shows that Americans perceive government as the greatest threat to their personal privacy, above both the media and corporations.
Last summer, after the Clinton White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was found to be using unauthorized information-collecting devices, also known as "cookies," on Internet search engines, I requested that the General Accounting Office (GAO) investigate federal agencies' use of these devices on their own Web sites.
GAO only had time to investigate a small sample of federal agency sites, but they found a number of unauthorized cookies, despite the Clinton Administration's restriction on their use. In one case, GAO found a cookie that was operated by a third-party private company on an agency Web site under an agreement that gave the private company co-ownership of the data collected on visitors to the site.
As a follow-up to the GAO investigation, Congressman Jay Inslee and I worked together on an amendment to require all agency Inspectors General to report to Congress on each agency's Internet information-collection practices. The findings of these reports are cause for concern.
According to the Inspectors General, some federal agencies have been struggling to manage their Internet sites and data collection practices without violating Administration privacy policies. Although fewer than half of the reports have been completed, the Inspectors General identified 64 federal agency Internet sites that were using unauthorized information-collection devices during the last days of the Clinton Administration.
Most Inspectors General also commented on the need to create and enforce agency-wide procedures for the maintenance of federal Internet sites. I commend those Inspectors General that are working to eliminate cookies and bring the Web sites into compliance with existing privacy policies.
As Chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, I am deeply concerned about privacy protection. Accordingly, I have held a number of hearings on the security of government computer systems and have conducted oversight of federal agencies to ensure that citizens' privacy is not being abused.
Recently, I introduced The Citizens' Privacy Commission Act. This bipartisan legislation will address the concerns people have about the potential misuse of their personal information by the government. It establishes an 11-member commission to examine how federal, state, and local governments collect and use our personal information.
The legislation also instructs the Commission to make recommendations to Congress on how to map out government privacy protections for the future. The Citizens' Privacy Commission will investigate all aspects of privacy in the government, such as FBI e-mail interception, IRS data security, agency Web site privacy, as well as the current applications of the Privacy Act of 1974 and other laws addressing government privacy practices.
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