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Privacy Is The Best Policy

The angry reactions to ChoicePoint's revelation that its database of personal consumer information had been compromised led politicians, in bandwagon fashion, to promise committee hearings and offer up improved legislation to enforce stricter privacy measures on companies dealing with consumer data. But maybe they're on to something. A recent survey revealed the deep ambivalence Americans have about computers' ability to safeguard such sensitive information as medical records. Sensing the potent

Divided Over E-Health Records
While the federal government is investigating ways for most Americans to have electronic medical records within 10 years, a new survey indicates that Americans are sharply divided over whether the benefits of E-health records outweigh privacy risks. The findings were revealed in testimony last week by a privacy expert before the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as part of government hearings on "Privacy and Health Information Technology."

Alan Westin, professor of public law and government emeritus at Columbia University and director of a new program on IT, health records, and privacy at nonprofit think tank Center for Social and Legal Research, told the committee that 48% of American adults believe the benefits to patients and society of a digital patient-record system outweigh risks to privacy. However, nearly the same percentage--47%--say privacy risks outweigh expected benefits. Four percent say they aren't sure.

The phone survey of 1,012 adults, conducted by Harris Interactive in early February, was commissioned by Westin for his testimony before the committee. Westin, the author of two books on privacy, was asked to appear at the hearings to discuss public attitudes toward health care and privacy in the context of IT applications and programs to develop a national electronic medical-record system. Only 29% of survey respondents were even aware there was a national electronic health-record program under way.

Westin says he isn't surprised that more Americans haven't heard of the national effort to build electronic medical records. "So far it's been loosey-goosey, something that's expected to unfold in 10 years," he says. Also, the subject hasn't been spotlighted yet in the national media, despite President Bush's mention of the effort in his last two State Of The Union addresses.

In his testimony, Westin said the survey also found that two-thirds of adults are worried that sensitive health information could leak out because of weak data security, that there could be more sharing of patients' medical information without their knowledge, and that computerized records could increase rather than decrease medical errors.

-- Marianne Kolbasuk McGee


Feds Seek Privacy Advice
The Department of Homeland Security is tapping the private sector for advice on data privacy. The department named 20 members last week to the newly formed Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, which will advise secretary Michael Chertoff and chief privacy officer Nuala O'Connor Kelly on policy, operations, and technology issues that could affect data collection, data integrity, and data interoperability.

Panel members come from private industry, such as Kirk Herath, chief privacy officer and associate general counsel at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. They also come from tech vendors Computer Associates, IBM, Intel, and Oracle, as well as academia and nonprofit organizations. They're expected to help the department with data-protection, openness, and national-security issues. "The diversity of experience and perspectives represented by this committee will play an important role in advancing the national discourse on privacy and homeland security," O'Connor Kelly said in a statement.

The department raised media eyebrows by appointing the chief privacy officer from Claria Corp., which was founded in 1998 as The Gator Corp., an adware company that settled a lawsuit in 2003 with some of the largest newspaper publishers over claims it wrongly delivered pop-up ads on their sites.

Advisory committee meetings will be held quarterly, with the first meeting April 6 in Washington. Some of the proceedings and information generated from the panel's activities may be kept private because of classification and information-protection laws.

-- Eric Chabrow


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