Americans are worried about their identity

Posted: Jul 29, 2005 12:00 AM

If Congress and state legislatures are looking for meaningful and popular legislation, they need to consider developing new laws to help stop identity theft.

 They could do it by prohibiting businesses and other private entities from collecting Social Security numbers. They should also make it illegal to sell Social Security information to third parties.

 How much of a hit would this be with the American people? Consider the response to our recent InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion national survey.

 Question: Do you favor or oppose legislation that would limit and end dissemination of Social Security card numbers by any third party or private company, as well as make it more difficult to deny service to customers who refuse to give their Social Security number?

 Favor -- 81 percent
 Oppose -- 11 percent
 Don't know/Undecided -- 8 percent

 The poll was conducted among a random sample of 600 Americans from July 15 to 20. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 In the past year, a boatload of corporations have lost or had stolen from them private information that was supposedly secure. Where some of that data ended up is anyone's scary guess.

 These corporate victims include credit card and personal data companies that sell this sensitive information to other companies, or even to governments.

 The problem seems to have subsided somewhat, at least for now. But the public remains agitated about it.

 The federal government and many state governments are in sore need of fresh policy ideas. This meeting of public and political needs begs for a swift and strong response to the continuing risk of identity theft.

 A report soon to be released will show that at some time millions of American seniors have been the victims of some kind of fraud, or at least identify theft, thanks to the unauthorized taking of their personal information.

 They are our most vulnerable citizens. And their potential electoral power can make any candidate vulnerable, too.

 Don't think members of Congress don't know it. Identify theft has become the subject of quiet but intense discussions at meetings of influential state legislators.

 Bob Barr is the former congressman who once helped prosecute Bill Clinton. Since then he has taken on battles that are less partisan and very popular. He is fighting infringements on the liberty and privacy of individuals. That continued struggle has made him perhaps the nation's top expert on these matters.

 Barr tells me that he believes that when Congress returns to Washington, it will probably move aggressively to introduce legislation designed to protect the public from identity theft.

 Many of the companies involved in recent mishaps in which private information fell into the wrong hands "may think they have this thing all covered and under control," Barr says. "They don't."

 Barr recognizes what many of his former colleagues in Washington and many of my former colleagues in state legislatures are starting to see for themselves. They now realize this kind of fraud or theft is a personal affront to people. It's potentially as devastating to them as a natural disaster, or a violent attack on our shores by terrorists or a foreign country. It hits Americans in the one spot that draws the fastest and strongest reaction from them -- their pocketbooks.

 The average American has trouble understanding why someone else should be able to make a dollar selling their personal information. And they are starting to wonder why it's necessary for businesses and other private entities to require customers and others to submit information originally issued by the government. The prime example is, of course, Social Security numbers.

 The genie has long since escaped the bottle, of course. This kind of information is already in the hands of private companies.

 But the Bush White House could catapult the issue into the forefront by joining Congress and state legislatures in a push to end the practice of companies begging for or peddling our private information. The president has already invested immense political capital in advocating Social Security reform, and this new initiative could work in tandem with those efforts.

 At minimum, our government leaders could team up to put real restrictions on information "sharing," even if it's too late to ban the practice altogether.

Trending Townhall Video