13 April 2004

Privacy advocates on the case

Privacy advocates on the case:


Mercury News Editorial

California's tenacity in the fight to protect consumer privacy has earned it a well-deserved reputation for leadership. It made headlines across the nation with the three-year crusade by Sen. Jackie Speier to curb the abuse of personal information by the financial services industry.

No single piece of legislation in this year's session matches that battle in scope or controversy. But plenty of bills would advance the privacy rights of California residents and take a bite out of identity theft, one of the fastest-growing forms of crime. They deserve broad bipartisan support.

If you're snooping on workers, they ought to know. SB 1841 would require employers to notify workers if they intend to monitor their e-mail and other activities. Under current law, employers are not allowed to listen in on workers' phone conversations without notifying them. In the digital age, it's only natural to extend the same protections to e-mail.

The bill, SB 1841, does not bar employers from snooping on your in-box. It simply forces them to let you know if they plan to do so. Next time you're writing your doctor over a sensitive medical issue or contacting your accountant to tweak your tax returns, you can decide whether you need to do it from your home account. The bill, authored by Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, will be heard today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

• You have a right to know if your personal information has been compromised. A law that went into effect last July forces businesses and government agencies to notify customers if they suspect that hackers gained unauthorized access to Social Security numbers and personal information. SB 1279 would expand the law so that consumers must be notified anytime their personal information is released inadvertently.

This year, Bank of America mailed 3,800 tax forms to the wrong customers. Bank of America reacted swiftly, notifying customers and providing them with a free service to monitor their credit rating so they could spot whether they were victims of identity theft. Not all businesses would choose to behave so responsibly. The bill ensures that it's not a matter of choice. It was authored by Bowen and will also be heard today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

• No more credit card numbers in the mail. AB 3013 would bar financial firms from printing more than five digits of a credit card number in letters to customers.
Similar restrictions, intended to keep credit card numbers from identity thieves, already apply to credit card receipts. Yet studies show that nearly 5 percent of identity theft starts with the theft of mail. The bill, by Assembly member Fran Pavley, D-Woodland Hills, will be heard April 19 in the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee.

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