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Saturday, April 20, 2024

When news broke last week that the passport files of presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain were illegally accessed by employees at the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quickly issued a public apology.

The curious employees are now under investigation by the State Department's inspector general, and two have been fired.

But where is the apology for the American public?

The high-profile nature of the breach certainly has Rice looking embarrassed and incompetent, but this is neither the first nor the last of this blatant disregard for the privacy of all American citizens - not just high-profile politicians.

Since January 2005, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has documented more than 900 individual data breaches by U.S. companies and government agencies, which together have involved more than 200 million records containing sensitive personal information, many revealing the holy grail for those seeking to steal identities: social security numbers.

And just last Thursday, it was revealed that a laptop computer containing sensitive medical information on 2,500 patients from a National Institutes of Health study was stolen - in February. The information was not encrypted, a clear violation of the government's data-security policy. More importantly, NIH officials made no public comment about the theft and did not send letters to notify the affected patients of the breach until almost a month after they knew about the theft.

This is unfortunately not a unique incident. So, as the major media outlets took the passport story and ran with it, millions of Americans who have had their private information more dangerously disregarded are left wondering why nothing has been said or done about their own - and sometimes more serious - privacy violations.

This month, the Government Accountability Office found that at least 19 of 24 agencies reviewed had experienced at least one breach that could expose people's personal information to identity theft.

With the knowledge that identity theft and fraud is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, costing victims over $5 billion annually, it's a mystery why the federal government is not doing more to bring attention to the risks.

A decade ago, the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 made it a federal crime when anyone "knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law."

A lot has changed since then. With the widespread use of electronic databases and unsolicited credit card offers, the need for stronger federal laws that not only make identity theft a crime, but also make consumer privacy a priority, are now more than necessary.

In 2007 alone, the Identity Theft Resource Center documented 448 paper and electronic breaches, potentially affecting more than 127 million records.

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And there is still no national law to protect the privacy of the information you share online.

So, as Obama calls for an investigation into how the security of the passport files of the three presidential candidates was breached, who will call for an investigation into the countless others?

We're not holding our breath on that one.

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