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Feds urge tougher ID theft laws

Can 'strategic plan' save bureaucrats from themselves?

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A federally convened task force released a "strategic plan" designed to stem the growing menace of identity theft by toughening criminal laws, improving data retention practices and establishing more effective educational campaigns for individuals and businesses. At least one privacy advocacy group complained the measures fall short of what's needed to fix the problem.

The plan, which was unveiled on Monday by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, follows years of blunders by federal agencies that have exposed social security numbers (SSNs) and other sensitive information on tens of millions of individuals. The most recent breach came to light late last week, when it was revealed that a publicly available database maintained by the Census bureau included the SSNs of tens of thousands of individuals for more than a decade.

With the public clamoring for solutions to the identity theft epidemic, the US government seems eager to offer evidence it is cracking down on the problem. Last May, President Bush established the task force, which comprises representatives from 17 federal agencies and departments.

Today's strategic plan would suggest the government has yet to tackle identity theft in a comprehensive and meaningful way. In large part, the plan reiterates common-sense practices mandated in existing laws and policies, such as requirements that agencies limit the use of SSNs as a means of identification. As last week's disclosure demonstrates, the mere existence of a law banning that practice goes only so far in ensuring bureaucrats actually follow it.

The plan also recommends the establishment of national standards that private sector entities must follow to safeguard the personal data they maintain and would require them to notify consumers when breaches occur. It also suggests the creation of a national law enforcement center to coordinate the efforts of various local, state and federal prosecutors.

The plan calls for several legislative proposals, as well. Among them is a law that would ensure that those who pilfer information belonging to corporations and organizations can be prosecuted and the addition of several new crimes to the list of offenses that qualify as "aggravated identity theft". Other recommended laws would eliminate current requirements that information must have been stolen "through interstate communications," ensure federal prosecutors can charge those who use keyloggers and other types of spyware and broaden a cyber-extortion statute.

The breach involving the Census Bureau website came to light after a farmer in Illinois Googled herself and stumbled upon information on FedSpending.org, which included her SSN and the SSNs of at least 30,000 others who received financial assistance from the Agriculture Department. Other high-profile breaches involving the federal government include the Veterans Affairs Department, which lost a laptop containing information on some 28 million vets. The IRS, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have also suffered breaches that put individuals' identities at risk of being stolen.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, applauded some of the plan's provisions, but said the plan didn't go far enough. "The report lacks any holistic approach to fixing an outdated national privacy framework that is dangerously ill equipped to respond to modern privacy threats," the CDT argued on its website. "CDT continues to call for the enactment of a national consumer privacy law and for real enforcement of the Federal Privacy Act."

The plan can be found here (PDF). ®

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