A leading US watchdog has urged Washington to clamp down on the collection of personal data on public sector Web sites after a study found that almost half break the law by not providing enough information on the use to which such data will be put.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Watch research group surveyed the Web pages of 70 federal agencies and found that 31 of them collect personally identifiable information about people accessing their sites, such as names, addresses and social security numbers. Of that number, only 11 told users how their data would be used.
Ari Schwartz, an OMB Watch information specialist, commented: "Agencies collect personal information about visitors to their Web sites, but fail to tell them why that information is being collected and what it is being used for."
He added that technology had outstripped existing privacy legislation. Under the terms of the 1974 Privacy Act, individual US citizens are guaranteed access to their own public sector records. Federal agencies are obliged to obtain explicit permission to use personal data contained in them for any other purpose than that for it was originally collected.
But according to Schwartz: "The new medium has blurred the lines created by the Privacy Act and subsequent laws. Government agencies need to have a more clearly defined process laid out for them. Privacy experts on law, policy and technology must work with those engaged in dissemination to ensure that it is handled properly."
Only four agencies gave enough information about their intentions for using personal data to meet the requirements of current law: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Social Security Administration and the US Postal Service.
The Social Security Administration will next week reveal whether it intends to continue with an Internet site to allow citizens online access to some of their own records. The site was closed down earlier this year following revelations that it could easily be hacked into.
The US Federal Government spent $190 million in 1996 on setting up Internet sites and bulletin boards. According to recent estimates, there are now around 4,300 Government-related Web sites.
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