The federal government has failed to develop an adequate information policy and, as a result, the development of new applications of computer technology may be slowed, a congressional study warned yesterday.
The Office of Technology Assessment, in a report published yesterday, suggested that the government must address the the "confusing array of laws and regulations" within some overall framework.
The report found "neither a strong trend nor sentiment at present among policymakers in favor of a uniform federal information policy." It said that "continuation of the present situation could inhibit many socially desirable applications of information systems or create more intractable policy problems in the future."
There also is a need to develop protections against abuse of computer data bases in banking, medicine, credit, insurance and criminal justice, said the OTA, which is an arm of Congress.
Although the policy debate in the 1970s on privacy issues centered on how to protect information yielded by citizens, the issues are shifting sharply. "Individuals will increasingly be encountering computerized systems that collect and store information about them without their knowledge or consent," the report warned.
"Very little law exists pertaining to the ownership or disposition of such information, even when its use may be contrary to the individual's perception of his or her interests," the OTA said.
Not only is there a need to govern abuses of private data, but the government needs to tighten its own controls, the report said. The Social Security system disburses $2 billion a week, and energy resource and monetary policy information in other federal data systems could be used to make financial decisions, for example.
"Still others contain sensitive information relating to personal privacy or national security," the report said. "All would be highly attractive to theft, manipulation, or eavesdropping."
Further, the new technologies are raising issues of constitutional rights, particularly the ability of computers to record information such as listings of the books a person checks out of a library. The data could be used to assemble a "compelete dossier on that person's reading habits," the report warned.
Rep. George Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), a member of the OTA's congressional board, said the report underscores the urgency of developing policy on these issues "before the rush of events forecloses some of the options now available for developing and managing information science and technology."