Almost everything is for sale on the Internet — even the Social Security numbers of top government officials like CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft, consumer advocates warned Wednesday.
The California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said for $26 each it was able to purchase the Social Security numbers and home addresses for Tenet, Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials, including Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser.
That illustrates the need for stronger protections of personal information, the group said.
The CIA declined to comment, and calls to the Justice Department were not immediately returned.
Specifically, the foundation is concerned about legislation in the House that would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., and dozens of other members, aims to prevent identity theft and improve the accuracy of consumer records, among other things.
While backing the overall goals of the bill, the group's executive director, Jamie Court, objected to a portion of it that would continue a current pre-emption of tougher state privacy laws.
California Gov. Gray Davis signed such legislation Wednesday, which allows consumers to block companies from sharing personal information with affiliate businesses.
"Banks and insurers should not be able to go to Washington as an end-run around the most protective state privacy laws," Court said.
Bankers say the industry highly regulates the sharing of personal information. Even so, Diane Casey-Landry, president and CEO of America's Community Bankers, said there is support for a national standard for privacy. She said states adopting a patchwork of different rules could lead to new barriers for consumers seeking loans and increase the cost of loans because of the additional paperwork.
The Bush administration has urged Congress to act quickly to strengthen the nation's credit laws and has praised the House bill. It is expected to come up for a vote in the first few weeks after lawmakers return from their August recess.
A spokesman for Bachus, Evan Keefer, said the legislation has important new provisions that will be tough on fraud. He said the issue raised by the foundation is something lawmakers would look at in conference, after votes in the House and Senate.
The foundation wants to see a strong national law on credit reporting, but Court said that should not preclude states from passing even stronger privacy protections.
He said stopping trafficking of information among corporate affiliates is key because some companies have hundreds of businesses under the family umbrella. For example, a banking corporation might have a number of insurance, securities and real estate affiliates it does business with and financial data might be swapped among all.
"If you cannot stop the traffic in your information among corporate affiliates, you don't have privacy in this nation," Court said.
In addition to Social Security numbers, he said some online sites will give out a person's bank account balance for about $300.
Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse based in San Diego, said there are at least a dozen sites that provide Social Security numbers and other private data.
"If you're willing to spend a little money, you can get this type of information very easily on the Internet," said Givens.
Other officials whose data was available include Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and FTC Commissioner Timothy Muris, but not the president himself.
Some personal information about top officials is available on line for free. The address for one of the top officials, and the birthdays and home zip codes of two others, appeared to be available in that fashion.