Privacy Concerns May Tame Internet

Carroll Oberst still seethes at how his identity was stolen off the Internet by a man who opened bank and credit-card accounts in his name and ran up $35,000 in bills.

But Oberst no longer feels helpless. He recently joined a growing group of privacy victims fighting back against what they see as a common scourge: the speedy, cheap access to a range of personal details that is made possible by computer networks.

Oberst and other privacy victims are planning to testify next Tuesday in favor of popular bills that would toughen protection in California.

One measure being considered toughens the penalty to a felony from a misdemeanor for forging one's identity. Another bill gives individuals more rights if they feel personal information in a background report is flawed.

"This is not so much a feeling like I'm getting even. My feeling is hopefully this will do some good," Oberst said.

The measures for better or for worse seem poised to tame a freewheeling medium that has boomed on unlimited access. Today, for nominal fees, personal details such as Social Security numbers can be found over the Internet and used to create a whole new identity for opening an account and sticking the fraud victim with the bills.

The backlash is particularly evident in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, where state lawmakers are pushing dozens of privacy-protection measures that include restrictions on credit reports and the sale of confidential medical and genetic information to marketers and other businesses.

In Congress, roughly 50 privacy-protection measures are pending.

One measure, introduced by Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., would require written consent from an individual before a computer service can disclose a subscribers' personal information to a third party. It also allows consumers to access and correct information they believe is faulty.

This clampdown is resisted by marketers, who have prospered by mining electronic records to custom-tailor pitches to customers, and free-speech advocates who fret about restricting legitimate access to information.

Yet recent horror stories are commanding greater public sympathy.

Grocer Giant Food Inc. and CVS, a drug store chain, sold customers' medical information to a marketing company that sent consumers coupons for drugs related to their disorders. An outcry of privacy concerns halted the practice.

Veteran sailor Timothy R. McVeigh faced expulsion for homosexuality early this year based on evidence the Navy gathered from America Online.

Retail salesman Bronti Kelly, 34, of Temecula, California, couldn't figure out for years why no one would hire him: A tainted police record sent across the Internet to employers mislabeled him a shoplifter. The May Co., which failed to correct the erroneous shoplifting report, was ordered in January to pay more than $73,000 to Kelly, who ended up homeless when he ouldn't get a job.

"With advent of the Internet, you're seeing a whole new class of victims," said Dave Banisar, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based watchdog group.

By David E. Kalish ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed