An individual's right to privacy may soon be protected by a watchdog group within the Executive branch.
The Privacy Protection Study Commission indicated this week that it will recommend to the President and Congress the creation of a federal privacy board with the power to stop government agencies from asking unnecessary or irrelevant personal questions of individuals during administrative proceedings.
While the board would not have direct authority over similar intrusions by the private sector, the commission recommended stiffer penalties for industry violations than for government and provided that the board act in an omsbudman-like capacity in reviewing private sector complaints.
The commission unanimously adopted the proposal of Rep. Edward I. Koch (D-N.Y.), to create the independent board, because he said the Office of Management and Budget, which now oversees privacy issues, is "neither appropriate nor adequate" for the task.
The proposal provides that the board could intervene in other agencies' administrative proceedings "where the action . . . would have a material effect" on privacy. It could initiate proceedings and make binding rules to determine what information government agencies must make available to the public, but not what must be kept secret.
It would serve only as a complaint center for private sector violations, however, The board would pass such complaints on to Congress or an agency with rule-making authority over the field involved.
The privacy agency would have the power to rule, for instance, that the Civil Service has no right to inquire about an applicant's drinking habits if they are not relative to employment.In the private sector, it might send a gay rights group complaint that insurance companies ask about applicants' sexual preferences to the state insurance commissioner.
The proposed penalties for private sector violations include minimum fines of $1,000 for actual damages and fines of $10,000 if a court determines the violation was intentional.
Under the Privacy Act of 1974 a person can collect actual damages from the government only if it acted intentionally or willfully.
The commission will also recommend a far-reaching change was made in the availability of medical records to permit a patient or third party designated by the patient to obtain his records from a health-care provider upon request.
An American Medical Association spokesman said the AMA follows its code of ethics which treats the patient's records as the physician's personal property. Physicians feel that it can be harmful for some patients, especially those with mental disorders or fatal diseases, to see their records.
The commission's recommendations on commerical and consumer credit have triggered strong reactions from retail store chains. The proposals would allow individuals to question the propriety, relevance or necessity or questions asked by credit grantors before a government board.