Oversight Hearing on "Personal Information Acquired by the Government From Information Resellers: Is There Need for Improvement"

Before the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law and the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives

Testimony of Peter Swire

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I thank the Committee for the invitation to testify before you today on the draft GAO Report “Privacy: Opportunities Exist for Agencies and Information Resellers to More Fully Adhere to Key Principles.”

The testimony briefly describes my background and the history of today’s topic.  In 1974, when the Privacy Act was passed, the most important databases used by the government were developed by the government. Today, by contrast, the private sector assembles a far greater portion of the databases that are useful and relied on by government agencies. The big question is how we update our laws and practices to this new reality.

The overall theme of my testimony is that we are still early on the learning curve about how to incorporate private databases into public-sector actions. My testimony first gives some comments on the way the Report interprets the Fair Information Practices. It then makes the following principle recommendations:

1. Because agencies make such important decisions based on the data, it is essential to have accurate data and effective ways to get redress for the mistakes that inevitably occur.

2. New mechanisms of accountability are likely needed as agencies rely more heavily on non-government suppliers of data. There should be expanded use of privacy impact assessments. The government contractor provisions in S. 1789, a data-breach bill, also illustrate additional steps that may be useful.

3. Greater expertise and leadership is needed in the executive branch on privacy issues, notably including policy leadership within the Executive Office of the President. The lack of such leadership on privacy has led to significant, avoidable problems.

4. As we continue along the learning curve, it is important to merge today’s discussion about privacy protection with the ongoing debates about the need for information sharing within the government. The Committee may wish to support creating a National Academy of Sciences study on privacy and information sharing, including the use of commercial data by the federal government

Read the full testimony (PDF)