April 9, 2001

House Majority Leader Takes Stand for Privacy

WASHINGTON D.C.—In a memorandum to House colleagues, Texas Representative and House Majority Leader Dick Armey took a strong stand for Americans' privacy rights. His letter, entitled "Privacy for Those Who Live in a Glass House," tackles head-on breaches of privacy in the Department of Veteran's Affairs and other powerful federal departments.

Representative Armey said,

Before the Federal Government becomes too preachy about privacy, it should review its own practices. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for example, thought it had developed some good ideas for regulating commercial websites to protect privacy. The Commission set out its own privacy principles last May in a report entitled 'Fair Information Practices in the Electronic Marketplace.' The problem was that the good folks at the FTC were so busy figuring out how to regulate the commercial sector that it forgot to regulate itself---and they fell into the hypocrisy trap. . . .

Rep. Billy Tauzin and I asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to apply the FTC's privacy criteria to the government itself. Not only did the FTC fail to meet the very standards it had asked Congress to impose on everyone else, so did 97 percent of all federal websites surveyed.

The IRS knows how much money you make and how you spend it. The Department of Labor knows where you work and how long you have worked there. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) might well know everything about your medical history, especially if you are on Medicare or Medicaid. They all know your name, address, phone number, Social Security number and maybe even your e-mail address.

As Home School Legal Defense Association works on privacy issues, we realize that somewhere on the spectrum between the powerful benefits of the Internet and the horror stories about online violations of privacy is this two-part truth: We have to surrender some privacy to capture the benefits of information technology. And we have to sacrifice some of the efficiency that electronic sharing of information might produce in order to protect our privacy.

In crafting rules for the health care industry, courts, banks, brokers, and insurers, the government attempts to balance conflicting demands for privacy and productivity. Each instance has resulted in a complex compromise that is assaulted as "too loose" by privacy advocates and "too onerous" by the industry that must comply with the rules. Congress couldn't find a compromise to protect medical records so it tossed the task to the Department of Health and Human Services. The complexity of the result---32 pages of rules in small type---reflects the complexity of the choices. HHS received 52,000 comments on its privacy rules.

As lawmakers sort through the tough issues of privacy HSLDA believes it is vital that they keep this rule of thumb in mind: A person's right to privacy should always receive a higher protection than a government's right to information, unless the government has a compelling interest in collecting that information.

Read the rest of Rep. Armey's memorandum here.