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Burden is on us to protect our data

Filed under
Security

If you had to guess, how many companies would you say have enough of your personal data stored in various databases to make even a rookie crook ready for prime-time conning?

Ten, perhaps? What about 50, 100 or 1,000?

You probably don't know the answer, and that is exactly the problem.

In the past six months, the personal data of millions of consumers have been lost, stolen or sold to identity thieves. The most recent case involved a financial unit of Citigroup Inc. CitiFinancial, which provides a wide variety of consumer loan products, disclosed that personal information (Social Security numbers, loan account data and addresses) of 3.9 million of its customers was lost by UPS in transit to a credit bureau. So far CitiFinancial said it had no reason to believe that the information has been used inappropriately.

So far.

Every time we hear of one of these cases, the companies involved tell their customers not to worry. Trust us, they say. They pledge to enhance their security procedures.

The promises don't make me feel any safer about my personal data. How about you?

It's time for the federal government and the states to step in and make sure the companies fulfill those promises.

There have been some efforts to protect people's financial information. On June 1, a new federal rule took effect that requires businesses and individuals to destroy sensitive information derived from consumer credit reports.

I was initially encouraged when I heard about this rule. It seems to cover all the bases -- individuals, and both large and small organizations that use consumer reports, including consumer reporting companies, lenders, insurers, employers, landlords, government agencies, mortgage brokers, car dealers, attorneys, private investigators, debt collectors and people who pull consumer reports on prospective home employees, such as nannies or contractors.

There's just one little problem with this "Disposal Rule." There is no standard for how the documents have to be destroyed. Here's the direction the Federal Trade Commission is giving to businesses and individuals: "The proper disposal of information derived from a consumer report is flexible and allows the organizations and individuals covered by the rule to determine what measures are reasonable based on the sensitivity of the information, the costs and benefits of different disposal methods, and changes in technology."

How strong is a standard if it has no standard? Basically, those who have our information get to decide how and when it is to be destroyed.

"The burden is completely on the consumer to protect what is important," said Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of the newsletter, Privacy Times.

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