Cyber data banks to limit public access More than dozen firms are seeking to head off restrictive legislation



WASHINGTON -- In a move to head off restrictive legislation, more than a dozen companies that use cyberspace to disseminate personal information, including Social Security numbers, announced yesterday that they would voluntarily limit access to it.

But first, consumers will have to take steps of their own to restrict that access, by requesting that their names be removed from databases of private information made available to the general public.

The agreement involves 14 "look-up" service companies, including Lexis-Nexis, that account for about 90 percent of the traffic in personal information. Three of those companies are among the nation's largest credit-reporting agencies.

On request, the companies said, they will restrict the access that the general public has to private information, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, unlisted telephone numbers and mother's maiden name.

The agreement does not apply to information generally available in public records, like court documents and marriage and divorce papers.

Further, all the private information will still be available to law-enforcement agencies, and some of it to law firms and to banks and other businesses.

Critics noted that while the agreement would allow people to keep their names out of databases of private information available to the general public, it would require them to "opt out," meaning that they would have to reach each of the 14 companies to have their names removed.

"Many people don't even know that these entities exist," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel to the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties organization focusing on privacy on the Internet. "Access doesn't matter if you don't know they are there."

The 14 companies, which pledged to make the restrictions effective by the end of next year, are Acxiom Corp., CDB Infotek, DCS Information Systems, Database Technologies Inc., Equifax Credit Information Services Inc., Experian, First Data Solutions Inc., Information America Inc., IRSC Inc., Lexis-Nexis, Metromail Corp., National Fraud Center, Online Professional Electronic Network and Trans Union Corp.

The companies also said they would be responsible for determining that their subscribers are legitimate and that they have a legitimate need, such as tracking down deadbeat parents or looking for witnesses, for the information they are seeking.

The Federal Trade Commission, which worked with the companies to develop the restrictions, responded favorably to the agreement and said it would delay proposing legislation that would further protect the privacy of consumers.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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