WASHINGTON -- Even while federal officials promise to push harder on consumer privacy legislation this year, a collection of groups from across the political spectrum is challenging them to keep their word.
The coalition presented a "privacy pledge" Monday to officials that would ensure federal privacy safeguards and give consumers the right to remove or correct computerized personal information held by online companies.
While industry groups have resisted even the leanest of privacy legislation, they are slowly warming to the idea. They also want to assure online users still wary about entering their addresses and credit card numbers on the Web.
Now that companies have accepted published "privacy policies" stating how they use customer records as an essential part of their site, privacy advocates say more protections are needed.
"It doesn't do much good if you're told in explicit terms that you have no rights," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's like a burglar who comes into your house and steals your television set but leaves you a really nice note as to what he's going to do with it."
The industries have also favored self-regulation and the use of private technologies that cloak consumers' identities as they go online. The pledge embraces these tools.
"The optimum federal response is to set strong, basic privacy standards and to promote strategies at the state level and in the private sector for implementing them and offering additional protections as needed," the groups said in a letter last month to President Bush and other federal officials.
The main principles -- to inform consumers how their information is used, protect the data from hackers and give consumers power over their data -- described in the pledge are the same criteria used by the Federal Trade Commission to judge e-commerce companies last year.
Also mentioned is consumer "redress," which could allow individuals to sue a company if their personal data is used improperly. That proposed right is strongly opposed by companies and is a potential roadblock for legislation, though Steinhardt called that an essential part of enforcement.
"Without remedy, there is no right. There's just an empty promise," Steinhardt said. "Government can not always be counted on to vigorously enforce laws."
The challenge came from 14 groups, known collectively as The Privacy Coalition. Members include the ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Library Association, United Auto Workers union and conservative Eagle Forum.
The pledge singles out some new surveillance technologies, such as video tracking and workplace monitoring.
Many companies use various methods to watch over workers, particularly when they go online. And video surveillance is becoming increasingly common.
After the Super Bowl in January, it was disclosed that video cameras watched fans as they walked into the stadium, using face recognition technology to look for wanted criminals and known terrorists. That event prompted a separate mention of video surveillance in the pledge, Steinhardt said.
"At least in private industry, we have no rules to govern their use," he said. "That's the kind of issue that requires government action, and can't be solved simply by industry self-regulation."
On the Net
American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org
Electronic Privacy Information Center: http://www.epic.org
United Auto Workers: http://www.uaw.org
Eagle Forum: http://www.eagleforum.org
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