Guard your privacy, ACLU director says Social Security number is key

June 11, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

Refusing to give your Social Security number to anyone other than the federal government and your employer is one way to safeguard your personal privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union's executive director told a group of business leaders yesterday.

"When Social Security was passed in the '30s, Congress fought for it not to be a universal identifier," said Stuart Comstock-Gay. "Now if someone gets a hold of your Social Security number, they can tap into all kinds of information and perpetrate all types of fraud."

The speech -- given during the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce's monthly luncheon meeting -- went on as planned despite threats of a protest outside Martin's Westminster.

The protest never materialized.

"The ACLU is at times a controversial organization," said the chamber's executive director, Helen Utz. "We received only one phone call, but it was one I couldn't ignore because [the caller] said they would 'see that the talk didn't happen.' "

Mr. Comstock-Gay also told the group that while expanding technology that quickly shares information can be very useful for businesses, it often has negative implications that people don't think about.

For example, a couple in Indiana was turned down for a loan because $60,000 worth of debt accumulated by a person with the same name but a different middle initial was applied to their account.

When they complained, the credit information company promised to erase the mistake, but deleted the correction instead.

The couple recently settled a civil lawsuit with TRW, one of the three major credit information companies, and ITT, which was sending them dunning notices for the debt that was not theirs.

"Give me $50 and I will learn your complete financial history, your credit-worthiness, your medical history and, if we're lucky, your driving record," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

"The only thing I can't determine is things that happen in your bedroom, your taste in videos and your library records," he said, amid resounding cheers from Carroll County Public Library employees.

Medical history may become easily accessible if the Clinton administration is successful in implementing its proposed Smart Card plan, he said. The card, imprinted with your entire medical history, would be given to any doctor a person visits.

"This could force you to reveal all things you might not want or need to reveal, such as telling your dermatologist you were treated for syphilis or had a pregnancy that didn't go to term," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

French health care professionals have used the Smart Card system for many years and advise that only basic medical information be released when the card is placed into a computer reader. A password, punched in by the patient, would release more detailed information, he said.

"But that's not how whey want to do it here," said Mr. Comstock-Gay, referring to administration officials and lobbyists who support the card. "They want to go whole-hog."

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