There are few things that people value more than their privacy, especially when it comes to their personal finances. A record of the checks you write, the charges you make on your credit card, the stocks you buy, your insurance claims -- they tell as much or more about you than a personal diary.
Yet this personal diary is not kept under your bed or locked in your desk. It is held by a financial institution on terms that often do not coincide with its confidential, sensitive, personal character. In fact, financial institutions benefit from obsolete laws and rules that permit this information to be shared with people without your permission, and even sold to others who are not even part of the bank or securities firm with which you were doing business. Some of this can be explained as necessary for "efficiency," but much of it can only be explained as unnecessary angling for competitive advantage at the expense of personal privacy.
Shouldn't you have a say if your bank or broker wants to share your personal information with another institution? Shouldn't you be the one to decide whether your personal profile is put up for sale?
It sounds reasonable enough, but the fact is that you have very little control over the distribution of your own financial records. Current law allows financial firms to share your personal financial information without your knowledge or consent.
Concerns about financial privacy are heightened by the increase in bank mergers with insurance companies and investment firms. Once they merge, financial institutions are under no restrictions on sharing customer information from division to division.
For instance, your life insurance records could be made available to the loan officer considering your mortgage application. Or a grieving spouse could become a target for investment pitches as the financial "holding company" looks for "synergies" by sharing her insurance information with a securities affiliate.
Congress is now considering a bill to modernize the financial services industry. This is the ideal vehicle for common-sense measures to protect consumers' privacy. But right now, the bill falls short. Consumer advocates and privacy experts agree that a strong financial privacy bill should:
(1) Give customers the right to say "no" to institutions sharing personal financial information with their affiliates and prohibit any transfer of personally identifiable information to third parties without the customers' consent.
(2) Give customers the right to recover their losses when a financial firm violates their privacy.
(3) Allow customers to review their personal information for accuracy, and give them the right to correct erroneous information.
During consideration of the bill by the Commerce Committee, I succeeded in adding only the right to say "no." However, commercial interests oppose even this small gain so vehemently that they are threatening to kill the entire financial services bill if this provision is retained.
I support reforming our financial services laws for the sake of leveling the competitive playing field among financial service providers. But if the cost of such reform is that we fail to close the gaping privacy peepholes now riddling our financial system, the industry can sell your secrets to anyone. The special interests will have their cake and eat our privacy too.
The writer is a Democratic representative from Massachusetts.