An interview with Congressman Joe Barton

He's not a privacy professional per se, but over the past 24 years as a U.S. Congressman, Joe Barton has fought to protect Americans' privacy. In 2001, he co-founded the Congressional Privacy Caucus, which educates members of Congress on matters of individual privacy, and as the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, he helped lead the recent Congressional inquiry on behavioral advertising practices among telecommunications providers. The Privacy Advisor is pleased to bring you this Q&A with Congressman Barton.

What privacy initiatives are you currently pursuing?

Congressman Barton:
Most recently, I worked with Chairman Dingell on the privacy protection provisions in our committee's health IT legislation (H.R. 6357). They now require patients to be directly notified when private, personally identifiable health information has been breached. I have also joined Chairman Dingell in explaining the need for privacy protections to technology companies and about the questionable use of information about consumers that is gathered when people use of the Internet, often without their knowledge and almost never with their approval. Congressman Markey and I co-founded the Privacy Caucus in the House, and I was a lead Republican co-sponsor on our Social Security Number Protection Act (H.R. 948), which would prevent the commercial purchase and sale of Social Security numbers, particularly through online brokers, as well as on Ms. Bono Mack's anti-spyware bill (H.R. 964) to prohibit and penalize unsolicited downloads of programs without a user's consent; and data security and breach notification (H.R. 958) which addresses the responsibilities of commercial enterprises to protect our personally identifiable information and notify individuals when their data is breached.

IAPP: What motivates these initiatives?

Congressman Barton:
My motivation for pushing to enhance privacy protections stems from a belief that our personal information belongs to us, not to those with whom we do business, and that it should remain ours to control. We don't cede the right to sell our checking account numbers by buying a product with a check. I've always felt that way, but the march of technology makes it a greater concern than ever. In the Internet Age, the gathering and marketing of personally identifiable information is a welcome mat for identity thieves whose crimes harm millions of Americans each year. Protecting your information now means protecting your belongings, your family and your life. Breaches that threaten us all can happen to anybody. I know because my own patient records were on a laptop that was taken from the trunk of a National Institutes of Health employee's car.

IAPP: Congress has taken a sectoral approach to privacy. Do you see the need for a broad-based privacy law that could harmonize some of the differing standards that exist or are emerging?

Congressman Barton:
A broad approach to protecting peoples' online privacy seems both desirable and inevitable. If the Internet is going to reach its full potential to help us, people are going to have to feel just as secure going online as when they drive to the mall. Businesses don't send out gumshoes to track you around the shopping center, and they shouldn't be allowed to dog you around the Internet, either. Advertisers and data collectors who record where customers go and what they do want profit at the expense of privacy. But I think that electronic spying will actually damage the economy by eroding people's trust in the Internet and in the businesses that use it to snoop on them.
How do you see privacy issues shaping up in the next year? What changes to the debate will the elections bring?

Congressman Barton: The election will bring us a new administration and the viewpoints of the individual agencies will certainly change, but that won't happen overnight. Federal agencies have different expertise and different viewpoints according to their missions and jurisdiction, and their interest in privacy can vary widely. That being said, it seems to me that privacy will continue its rise as matter of concern as long as information can be compiled and transferred anywhere in the world with the click of mouse. Technology isn't slowing down, and to make it work for us as well as it should, users will have to be confident that they're not risking their lives or their finances when they go online. It's easy to spot some of the emerging problems, including how privacy will be guarded as personal, portable electronics further develop the ability to integrate and share pictures, video, text, and voice communication over the Internet in real time. Instantaneous communication will constantly challenge privacy, and privacy must challenge right back. Finding out how and then getting the balance right will be government's job in the next administration and for the many that follow it.

For more information: http://joebarton.house.gov


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