Armey Rips Federal Privacy, Security Lapses

Calling the government the nation's "biggest privacy offender," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Congress must redouble its efforts to stamp out federal privacy abuses.

In a speech before the conservative Federalist Society June 27, Armey urged his audience to support efforts aimed at curtailing the electronic information gathering powers of government agencies.

"Congress must also continue to use its oversight power to ensure that the administration is living up to its obligation to protect our privacy," Armey said in prepared remarks. "We should look more thoroughly into just how much information agencies have gathered about us and ask: Do they really need to know that about me?"

In his comments, Armey restated his belief that congressional efforts in the area of privacy should focus first on stamping out governmental, rather than corporate, abuses.

"This is the case for three reasons," Armey said. "First, government is quite simply the biggest privacy offender around. Second, government serves as the natural test subject for those sincerely interested in a deeper understanding of the effects of privacy regulation. Third, the government has an obligation to set an example for the private sector on privacy.

"Conservatives must embrace privacy, but on our terms, not theirs," Armey said, apparently referring to congressional privacy efforts aimed at restricting the ability of companies to collect and disseminate personal information about consumers.

Armey doesn't want conservatives to shy away from the privacy debate, Armey staffer Richard Diamond said following the speech.

"Some conservatives ... fear the privacy issue when they should embrace it," Diamond said. He said the issue is a natural for conservatives to take up and champion.

But Center for Democracy and Technology policy analyst Ari Schwartz argued June 28 that all facets of the privacy issue deserve equal congressional attention.

Armey is "correct that there are some issues we need to address in the governmental privacy space ... but we can do that at the same time we deal with corporate privacy," Schwartz said. "It's not one or the other."

Armey also criticized the Internal Revenue Service for security lapses surrounding its electronic filing system.

Citing a General Accounting Office report, Armey said that IRS electronic security was so spongy that "hackers with minimal skills could use a handheld computer to access and even modify anyone's e-filed tax return."

Although Armey did not recommend any specific legislative action, Diamond said that privacy protection proposals could be on the horizon.

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