One of the nation's leading brokers of personal data on millions of Americans said yesterday that it will restrict its sale of individual Social Security numbers amid growing public worries about privacy.
Westlaw, which provides data to government agencies, law firms, companies and other organizations, said corporate clients will no longer have access to Social Security numbers, and government offices other than law-enforcement agencies will now be able to get only partial numbers.
Data Brokers Vow to Protect Personal Information (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Data Under Siege (The Washington Post, Mar 10, 2005)
When Your Identity Is Their Commodity (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)
ChoicePoint Data Cache Became a Powder Keg (The Washington Post, Mar 5, 2005)
Databases Called Lax With Personal Information (The Washington Post, Feb 25, 2005)
ChoicePoint Victims Have Work Ahead (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2005)
ID Data Conned From Firm (The Washington Post, Feb 17, 2005)
In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)
Westlaw was not involved in a series of recent security breaches that resulted in identity thieves obtaining personal records of more than 175,000 consumers. In a new case announced yesterday, for example, Boston College warned 120,000 of its alumni that hackers had obtained access to their personal information.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) embarrassed Westlaw by holding a news conference last month to demonstrate how easy it was for his staff to use the company's service to obtain virtually anyone's Social Security number, including those of Vice President Cheney and celebrity heiress Paris Hilton.
Schumer and company officials met Wednesday and agreed to the changes, and the company pledged to work with Schumer on identity-theft legislation.
"This is a victory for consumers and a big loss for criminals who want to steal your Social Security number and your identity," Schumer said in a statement.
The changes come as consumer concerns mount over the security of personal information and the little-known and largely unregulated data-broker industry that has boomed in recent years. Personal information is used for many things, including marketing, checking creditworthiness and verifying identity for homeland security.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 84 percent of respondents said companies that collect and sell personal information are not doing enough to safeguard it.
Nearly a quarter of the respondents said their personal data had been stolen, while 57 percent said they worry that computers and technology are being used to invade personal privacy. The nationwide survey of 1,001 randomly selected people has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
"There's so much connected to the [Social Security] number," said Patricia Heiman, a retired teacher in River Forest, Ill., who now works for a church. "My worry is that the more people you have working with sensitive information . . . there's more risk."