Data Dragnet

Let's say I want to get a hunting license. I fill out a form, pay my money and I'm off to shoot dinner. No problem there. Being a conscientious hunter, I understand that my money goes to maintain and preserve the state's hunting grounds, and that it's not a good idea to let just any yahoo roam the woods armed and anonymous. I've tacitly agreed to turn over personal information, and money, for a cause I find reasonable and justified.But what happens when the information I gave is used for another purpose--a purpose I was never explicitly made aware of, let alone given the chance to agree to? The state did just that when I got my license. In fact, it does it all the time.Information from hunting licenses--as well as licenses for snowmobiling, fishing and boating--is now routinely shared with agencies trying to track down parents who owe child support. (Most people who get hunting licenses are male, as are most parents ordered to pay child support.) It doesn't matter whether I'm a payment-ducking scofflaw or father of the year, my name from the hunting license database is automatically compared against another database of deadbeat dads.Like a young black man pulled over because he's driving an expensive car, I am suspect because I fit a profile, snared in a data dragnet. Unlike the young man, though, I probably won't know I was under suspicion--my hunting license application didn't say anything about hunting deadbeats.Such "matching and merging" of data is a growing trend in state government, even though most people filling out forms containing personal, sensitive information don't know it's happening.Today, there are more than 100 matches and merges set up among governmental departments, agencies and private companies. The Department of Transportation shares information you provide when you get a driver's license. The Department of Revenue shares information about you when you win the lottery or, more likely, pay taxes. The Office of the Commissioner of Insurance shares information about you if you hold a license to sell insurance.Often justified as a way to streamline government, cut down on fraud and bring lawbreakers to justice, the growing use of matches and merges is starting to raise the hackles of people concerned about privacy and the intrusiveness of government. Yes, it's good to track down and punish lawbreakers, but at what price? What has society lost when its citizens can't make a move without being screened for past indiscretions or transgressions? How far are we willing to extend the long arm of the law?"It's always a two-edged sword," says Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids), the Legislature's most vocal defender of privacy rights. "There can be a good purpose and a bad purpose. These things are always justified on the grounds of some noble purpose. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions."THEY'VE GOT YOUR NUMBER The state of Wisconsin collects a lot of information about its residents. If you're HIV-positive, have had breast cancer or an induced abortion, you're in a database. If you've been treated for a sexually transmitted disease, been artificially inseminated or were conceived via artificial insemination, you're in a database. If you have a driver's license, a license to cut hair, are an attorney or a doctor, you're in a database. If you are a pharmacist, you are in a database. If you pay income tax, camp at a state campground, receive a state pension or have been committed to a mental hospital, you're in a database.The above are all state examples. Counties, cities and the federal government keep their own records.Carole Doeppers, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Wisconsin Data Privacy Project and the state's privacy advocate until the position was eliminated, thinks the government is just too nosy."There are many examples of too much information being given to the government," says Doeppers. "Digitized driver's license photos, birth certificates that ask mothers to disclose drinking and smoking habits, etc. These things are kept confidential, but that's not the point. Should that new mom have to disclose the information in the first place?"Government keeping tabs on citizens is nothing new, and it's not necessarily anything to be alarmed about. A lot of the information you give--voluntarily and involuntarily--is stripped of identifiers. The statistic is divorced from the name behind it.What's new is the technology that allows combining information from a variety of sources. Personal information you gave for one reason can now be compiled and compared, and used for another purpose."Someone could put back the data, things like zip codes, locations, race, diagnoses codes, etc.," says Doeppers. "I don't mean to say it's going on. I am raising the issue because the technology is there."And relinked information could come back to haunt you, Doeppers adds: "Until you have health insurance that's not employer-based, you are going to have employers very interested in risky behaviors, health conditions and problems. And God help us when genetic discrimination comes into play."MATCHMAKERS Most of the computerized snooping Doeppers fears has not yet materialized, but matching and merging is going on right now. More often than you might think, filling out a form lands you in a database that is then compared to another database.In her recent report on matching and merging--the first comprehensive effort to track the practice in Wisconsin--Doeppers found 140 governmental agencies or departments that regularly match and merge databases. There are probably many more."Certainly, that is at the low end of things," says Doeppers. "There were a lot of problems that I ran into."Doeppers' study was delayed by the governmental reorganization completed last summer. She had a hard time getting some agencies to cooperate, and discovered potential security problems with some of the data.As a result of her scrutiny, state records keepers took a closer look at their own procedures. "I learned that one agency was going to reexamine their uses and policies and beef up the safeguards," she says. "That's the whole point of the project--to sensitize government officials to their responsibilities."One state program that relies heavily on matching and merging is the Kids Information Data System (KIDS). Doeppers identified 17 matches between KIDS and other agencies or departments. (See graphic, page XX.)In terms of sheer numbers, KIDS isn't the largest matcher and merger. That honor goes to the entity formerly known as the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations. (It's now called the Department of Workforce Development, but Doeppers uses the old agency names in her report.) DILHR's 27 matches link it with everyone from the Federal Parent Locator Service to the Louisiana Department of Labor.KIDS, however, is the state's most ambitious attempt at setting up a data dragnet.Most people know KIDS for what it hasn't done--namely, work well. Reports of the system's hounding people who've fulfilled child-support obligations, slowing payments and miscalculating amounts are easy to find.Jim Luscher, an engineer who lives in Madison and is a member of Fathers for Equal Justice, has had a court-ordered child-support obligation since his divorce eight years ago. Since 1993, he's had the same job, where his employer takes the money--$958 a month--from his bimonthly check and sends it to authorities.Then came the KIDS system. "Suddenly," says Luscher, "I started getting these letters that I was behind in my payments. I was getting penalized and charged interest."When Luscher tried to straighten things out, he couldn't decipher the information KIDS sent him. Nor could he find anyone who could explain."When I finally got through to someone, they said they couldn't do anything," he says. "There was nobody in charge that could help me. But it was their own bureaucracy that created the fictitious statement that said I was behind."Luscher finally figured out that the KIDS system was breaking his payment down into weekly chunks. But because the support was based on a monthly amount when awarded, a discrepancy arose every time a month had more than four weeks in it. KIDS made the change without notifying Luscher or his employer, he says.KIDS officials blame such glitches on taking child-support enforcement statewide; previously it was the purview of individual counties. The program has been statewide since October and most of the early problems--including Luscher's--have been straightened out. But the experience left Luscher shaken and distrustful."I trust [KIDS] to screw up and destroy people--that's the nature of institutions," he says. "It feeds into the mentality of our state," he adds. "Let's build more prisons. Let's make more things against the law. Let's have more punitive actions."Already, with its extensive use of matching and merging, KIDS is the state's most far-reaching and ambitious law-enforcement effort. Not even police hunting fugitives have the same powers as KIDS.But the program's current reach pales in comparison to what it promises to become. Even people who think tracking down deadbeats is a grand idea may be shocked at the program's emerging scope and power.'STAY OUT OF THE DATABASE' The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, signed into law last summer, directs states to build extensive mechanisms to collect child support. If a state refuses, it stands to lose welfare funding (just as states that didn't lower their speed limits in years past risked losing highway funds).Beginning next year, a beefed-up version of KIDS will be phased in. A few highlights:o KIDS will enter into information-matching agreements with banks, credit unions, money-market funds and other financial institutions for the purpose of tracking down deadbeat parents. Financial institutions can be forced to turn over assets without a court order.o Every employer in the state will have to furnish the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of newly hired workers to the Department of Workforce Development at 20-day intervals. The information will be checked against databases of child-support cases, and be turned over to the federal government to create a national directory of new hires.o The state will gain new powers to place liens on, confiscate and sell personal property. No longer will a court order be required before a lien can be executed. As stated, somewhat paradoxically, in the proposed state budget, "These activities may be initiated without a judicial order, and must include due process safeguards."o The state will be able to suspend, revoke or not renew professional, driver's and recreational licenses to enforce compliance.o County child-support agencies will be able to get confidential records held by public utilities, cable companies and other businesses in order to "more quickly locate delinquent parents." Such information is now accessible only with a court order.o County officials can also order genetic testing to establish paternity in cases where probable cause can be established. These tests now require a court order.KIDS officials believe the ends justify the means, both fiscally and morally. The state could collect an additional $100 million in child-support payments annually, and getting tough with deadbeats sends a message that ducking out won't be tolerated."We are saying, 'You are responsible for this child. If you brought a child into this world, you owe child support, fella, so you may want to think twice,'" says David Blaska, spokesperson for Department of Workforce Development.Ann Wiley, policy assistant to the DWD secretary, believes KIDS is up to the task of taking appropriate and approved punitive measures. She promises that KIDS will be faster, more efficient and less tolerant of those who try to evade child support."All of the discretion [in child-support cases] has been removed," says Wiley. "Going through the courts only has the effect of slowing the process down and making it less efficient."What does Wiley have to say to those who fear mistakes, or are simply reluctant to give a state agency such overwhelming authority?"It's true people could say this is threatening," she says. "On the other hand, stay out of the database."VIRTUAL DOSSIER The problem is that everyone who participates in society ends up in database after database. And given the nature of huge government matching programs, privacy experts believe there will always be ghosts in the machine--meaning that people like Luscher will continue to be wrongly fingered."Quite often, the data used to make a match is never checked for accuracy in either the first or second databases," says Roger Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, a national newsletter. "You get a lot of false hits that way."The federal government has long used matching and merging to make sure benefits recipients are legitimate. When the system does screw up, it's up to the person who has been harmed to prove it, says Smith: "It really shifts the burden in a very cruel way to recipients of federal benefits."Federal law requires people identified in a computer match of federal databases to be notified before any action is taken. But many states don't comply with the law in cases where federal and state data are matched, says Smith, and the law doesn't apply when only state data is used. Wisconsin has a similar law requiring notification, but state agencies can be exempted if the "information in the record series is sufficiently reliable."Gov. Thompson recently tried to repeal the state statute that keeps matching and merging accountable to the public. Among other things, the statute requires all matches and merges to be justified and documented in a public file. Thompson changed his mind when privacy advocates raised a stink.Data integrity is another concern. Mistakes made in one database have a way of spreading when matching and merging is common practice. "It's not like when you have paper records and there's a mistake," says the ACLU's Doeppers. "In that case, you would simply go to the source and correct it."Even if KIDS never makes another mistake, there are good reasons to be wary. Doeppers, whose job it is to assess new technology and raise questions about its potential misuse, fears where matching and merging may lead. "Discreet databases that when taken individually may be innocuous" can be commingled using electronic techniques until "a virtual data dossier is created without the providers' knowledge or consent," she says.There's also the possibility that the KIDS model, once in place, could become the modus operandi for everything from unpaid parking tickets to overdue library books."You won't hear me saying it's not good policy [to track down deadbeat parents]," says Doeppers. "You will hear me say I don't want to make this the standard operating principle. The authority of the KIDS project is amazing."Doeppers would like to affirm and strengthen existing privacy laws and toughen consent laws so that people realize information they give to one agency may find its way to many others. The state of Wisconsin, however, seems to be moving in the other direction, as evidenced by its cutting Doeppers' privacy advocate job out of the budget. (State Rep. Schneider and others have introduced Assembly Bill 231 to re-create this position.)Speaking practically, Doeppers admits that once the legal and technological framework of programs like KIDS is in place, it will probably be put to other uses: "Sooner or later, somebody else will come along doing the Lord's work."


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