ID Theft Debate Roils Capitol Hill

A U.S. congressional appropriations bill amendment targeting online identity theft has angered President Bill Clinton, who threatened Thursday to veto the bill unless the amendment’s controversial language is withdrawn.

The amendment, proposed by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), would make it illegal to sell or display a Social Security number without an individual’s permission. Critics of the amendment, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, argue the amendment has flaws that will enable companies to sell customer information more readily.

“The bill creates loopholes that seriously undermine the goal of the legislation to protect privacy,” Clinton told Republicans in a letter released Thursday.

In 1999, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General reported more than 62,000 instances of misuse of Social Security numbers.

Loopholes Come Under Fire

The amendment proposed by Gregg is meant to ban the sale of Social Security numbers. However, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) said at a press conference that loopholes in the amendment “would actually validate the sale of Social Security numbers beyond [what is allowed] in current law.”

Shelby was joined by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who told White House reporters that the Clinton administration opposed the legislation. Although the amendment bans the sale of Social Security numbers to individuals, critics of the amendment claim it will also make it legal for almost any company (and the government) to purchase and sell Social Security numbers through a series of exemptions.

“Unfortunately, Gregg’s bill is riddled with loopholes and exceptions for special interests that would render its privacy protection meaningless and violate the First Amendment while doing so,” the ACLU said on its Web site. “Realizing that the legislation was written by and for information brokers, every privacy organization that has taken a position on the legislation has come out against the provision.”

Similar Bill in the Works

House Social Security subcommittee chairman Clay Shaw (R-Florida), author of the Privacy and Identity Protection Act of 2000, agreed with the amendment’s critics, telling press conference reporters that the amendment “hasn’t been well thought out.”

Shaw’s privacy bill prohibits the buying or selling of Social Security numbers but is not limited to businesses. The legislation would remove Social Security numbers from state driver’s licenses and other government-issued identification cards, and stop companies from withholding products or services to individuals who refuse to provide their Social Security numbers.

The Clinton administration said it remains hopeful that it can resolve the differences on the amendment so the veto on the appropriations bill can be avoided.

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