Recognizing the concerns of Americans about lack of privacy in the face of increasing technology, Vice President Al Gore today will call for legislation on an array of hot-button privacy issues and propose new regulations for maintaining the security of health information by health plans and providers.
Gore is seizing this moment in part because the privacy issue has been in the news lately and because Congress is in the midst of writing an array of privacy bills aimed at medical records, personal financial data and Internet activities.
“Currently, Americans have stronger privacy protection for their video rental records than they do for their medical records,” according to the administration’s outline of Gore’s proposal.
While much of Gore’s plan involves championing legislation already under consideration on Capitol Hill, privacy advocates hailed Gore’s speech as a welcome signal that the administration is serious about pushing for legislation and regulation of electronic information in an array of areas.
It is the first time that White House officials have pushed for online privacy legislation, apparently concluding that--at least in some high-profile areas such as protecting children’s privacy online--industry self-regulation is not working.
Among Gore’s top recommendations is passage of legislation to stop the collection of information from children who are using the Internet--unless parents give permission. He supports tougher penalties against identity theft--when personal information such as a credit card number is used for fraudulent purposes.
The administration also plans to start a privacy dialogue with state and local governments, some of which sell information from public records, such as motor vehicle registration and marriage license lists.
Gore also will make official the administration’s decision to postpone indefinitely controversial plans to issue a unique health identifier number to every American. The number will not be issued until medical privacy protections have been put into law, according to White House officials. That could take several years.
“Symbolically it’s important for the government to call for legislation,” said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties organization.
“It sends a signal to Congress that they are serious. It sends a signal to industry that they have to continue to work and to the advocacy community that they are listening,” Mulligan said.
Other privacy experts said what is most important is that Gore appears to be developing a package of privacy proposals with health care at their center, in contrast to past efforts that have tended to focus on individual privacy issues.
“It’s been a roller coaster over the past two decades with Republicans and Democrats supporting different pieces of legislation,” said Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University. “The vice president seems to be moving toward taking a full look at privacy across the board and he’s put medical privacy at the top of that list.”
Polls show that the American people overwhelmingly support privacy protection legislation. In a 1996 CNN/Time poll, 87% of those polled said patients should be asked for permission every time information about them is used. And, in a 1998 Business Week poll, 59% of respondents said they were concerned about conducting banking transactions online because of privacy worries, while 61% said they would be more likely to use the Internet if they believed the privacy of their communications would be protected.
Certainly this public support has not escaped Gore, who appears increasingly to be heightening his profile in preparation for his expected campaign for the Democratic presidential campaign in 2000. “The vice president views this as a leadership issue,” said a Gore aide.
Not surprisingly given his strong support for using the Internet as an educational tool and a spur to commerce, Gore is moving cautiously. His most concrete proposals revolve around relatively noncontroversial regulations, such as ending the practices of some companies that entice young children who are playing Internet games to give them information about their families.
Left unmentioned by Gore, however, will be two areas where privacy advocates wanted to see action: the regulation of encryption and overall privacy on the Internet--for adults as well as children.
“The right of privacy should not end where the Internet begins,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group.
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Los Angeles contributed to this story.