A poll of 74 of the Fortune 500 companies indicates industry has made little progress in finding ways to guarantee the privacy of its employes.
These findings were presented yesterday by David F. Linowes, former chairman of the Privacy Protection Study Commission, on the second anniversary of the release of the commission's report to the president. It recommended that industry be given a reasonable time to come up with its own privacy protection programs. Failing that legislation would be introduced to make the commission's guidelines manadatory.
Linowes, now a professor at the University of Illinois, which conducted the survey, stated: "Regrettably the findings hardly add up to widespread voluntary adoption of privacy safeguards in employment systems of the largest corporations in the nation." He added this was despite the fact four out of five respondents said they had assigned a high-level executive to the problem.
The poll revealed that although three fourths of the companies allow individual employes access to their own personal records, less than half gave them the right to copy the records.
Over two thirds of the companies do not tell employes what kind of records are maintained and the uses to which they are put. Secret records continue to exist.
Of those surveyed, 85 percent said they routinely disclose information to credit grantors upon request, 49 percent give it to landlords and 22 percent to charitable organizations. Yet less than a third of the corporations have a policy of letting their employes know they do this.
Medical records present a particular problem, according to Linowes. Three quarters of the companies use this information in making decisions affecting employe careers. Linowes told of a woman, denied promotion, who learned that the action was based on the fact recorded in her file that her mother had seen a psychiatrist. Her employer figured mental illness ran in the family so refused her a promotion.
Linowes warned of the potential power corporations possess to manipulate people by virtue of being the single source holding more sensitive information on individuals than any other. This includes medical, financial, family data.
Privacy protection has been endorsed as a concept by business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers. Among the industries that have model programs, according to Linowes and Robert Hawk of the chamber, are Equitable Life Assurance Society, IBM, Caterpillar Tractor and Scott Paper Co.
Yet implementation remains a problem, especially for industries employing fewer than 20,000 people. Linowes said he had been told by industry that the only way to achieve uniform compliance with privacy protection guidelines was to make them mandatory.
Hawk said the Chambers felt such a federal law was "not only inappropriate, but not needed."