Contributing to the alarm is a steady stream of breaches reported by other businesses and organizations.
In recent weeks, Bank of America Corp. announced it had lost tapes containing data on 1.2 million federal workers, and shoe retailer DSW Inc. said customer data from more than 100 of its stores had been compromised.
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)
Two large data brokers that were penetrated by identity thieves in the past month, ChoicePoint Inc. and LexisNexis, have announced steps similar to Westlaw's to reduce the amount of Social Security data they make available to commercial clients.
But the changes at the companies affect relatively small portions of their businesses, and some privacy experts are skeptical that they will result in improved privacy overall.
"So little is known about this industry that they can constantly play a shell game with the public," said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights advocacy group.
Congress already is considering several measures, including proposals to ban the commercial sale of Social Security numbers without the permission of the individual.
John Shaughnessy, a spokesman for Westlaw, said it is too early to say which specific reforms his company would support.
"The events of the past months illustrate the importance of tougher controls, and we're pleased to be a part of a broader and ongoing effort that supports both individual privacy and homeland security concerns," the company said in a statement.