Press Conference of Vice President Al Gore.
Re: Privacy proposals.
Date: July 31, 1998.
Source: This document was transcribed by TLJ from an audio tape of the press conference.
Participants:  The speakers were FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, Secretary of Commerce William Daley, Ann Pullium, and Vice President Al Gore,  The audience was comprised of Members of Congress involved in privacy legislation, EU Ambassador Hugo Paeman, representatives of privacy advocacy groups, legislative, agency, and White House staff, and members of the press.  The speakers did not take questions from the press.

Robert Pitofsky: Good morning everyone, I am Bob Pitofsky, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.  It is a great pleasure for me to participate in this meeting that will introduce a set of  proposals to strengthen the privacy rights of all Americans.  All sectors of the government and the business community are increasingly coming to realize that issues relating to citizens' right to privacy are critically important.  The decisions that are taken and the directions we choose will affect the way in which Americans operate in the marketplace, and.  It is a particular pleasure for me to have an opportunity to introduce the Secretary of Commerce, who has been ahead of the curve on these issues, and has done a great deal personally to focus the attention on how important these issues are to American consumers.  The Federal Trade Commission has had full opportunity to share views will other sectors of government and the business community, and cooperate with the Department of Commerce in the development of this agenda.  We pleased to have had a role in this project, which we think strikes an essential balance between the needs and rights of Americans and the importance of not unduly burdening commerce, or unnecessarily impeding the flow of [inaudible word].   Secretary Daley has been a leading figure throughout this process, well known for his business expertise and [inaudible word] skills, the Secretary has been the administration's point person in addressing various privacy concerns, relying on private sector leadership when possible.  It is my pleasure to introduce the Secretary of Commerce, the Honorable William Daley. [Applause.]

William Daley:  Thankyou for those kind words.   And more importantly, thankyou for the leadership which you provided and also for this entire project, the strong words and their direction, are most appreciated, appreciated by all of us [inaudible words] fellow agencies, government, the White House, personnel who have been involved, so active.

For many years in our country we have had a lively debate in our country on the subject of privacy.  But for many years it has been proven a very hard issue to deal with.   On the one hand, privacy is a fundamental America value.  American's must have the final word on whether their personal information is disclosed or not.  But the on the other hand, the idea of open government, a free flow of information, is a treasured American value.  It is the American way.  So we must find a balance, as technology becomes more sophisticated, it changes that balance, and it makes these decisions even more difficult.  I believe that President Clinton and the American people are extremely fortunate to have someone who is our leader on this debate who understands all of these issues.  The Vice President is known as a technology guru.  He knows all -- [Laughter.]   Now, believe it or not --

Al Gore: You're right.  [Laughter.]

William Daley: He knows all of the virtues of technology.  But he also knows that we must deal with technology's unanticipated results.  The Vice President clearly appreciates the need for a free flow of information in our free society.  And as concerned parents, he and Mrs. Gore have a long track record of protecting children too young to protect themselves.  All this experience, all of this experience has taught the Vice President that now is the time to pause, look around, have a discussion on privacy that is not locked in time but takes into account the new realities that new technologies changes America.  Today the Vice President will announce a privacy agenda that very comprehensive.  It relies on the private sector leadership where possible, and it relies on legislation when necessary.   It requires all of us who [inaudible word] to handle personal information more carefully.  It is an agenda that shows that we join together -- industry, advocacy groups, and government, which can do things the right way.

Today we want to illustrate just how important this is to innocent American people.   With us today is Ann Pullium from McClean, Virginia.  She and her husband became the victims of identity theft.  Somebody used their social security numbers to make phoney transactions and to profit from them.  Mrs. Pullium has an incredible story to tell that ought to serve as a wake up call to all consumers and  law enforcement officials.  [Applause.]

Ann Pullium: [not transcribed.]

Vice President Al Gore:

[The introductory remarks are not transcribed.  Gore discussed Ann Pullium.  Gore acknowledged of the other speakers and certain members of the audience, including Members of Congress who have worked on these issues (Sen. Bryan (D-NV), Rep. Jim Leach (R-IO), Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), and Rep. Bob Franks (R-NJ)), and European Union Ambassador Hugo Paeman.  He also praised Sally Kasser (Dep. Dir., National Economic Counsel), who was not present, for her efforts on this issue.]

Well ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to stand here today on behalf of President Clinton to make a series of announcements about how we can make our new economy, and our newest technology, consistent with America's oldest value.  Specifically, about how we can protect every American's right to privacy, amid the explosive growth of collection and use of personal records of all kinds.  Let's begin with a simple principle, privacy is a basic American value, in the information age and in every age.   It must be protected.  And as I said at New York University last spring, we need an electronic bill of rights for this electronic age.  We have displayed our electronic bill of rights here.  [A poster listing this bill of rights sat on an easel next to the Vice President.] And, it embodies four central principles.

Well, that is hardly the case today, as Ann's story points out, and as millions of Americans can tell you from the vantage point of their own experience, these rights do not have sufficient protections by a long shot.  In the course of an average day you may use a credit card to buy groceries.  You may visit a doctor and have your health information punched into a database.  Your child may innocently punch in information at a website designed for children.  And at every stop along the way you leave a trail of personal data that can be used and abused by people you have never met in places you have never been.  As the powerful testimony of Ann Pullium really drives home, we can do better, and we must do better.  And the American people want us to do better.  This issue is extremely  important to the citizens of this country.  So today I am proud to announce a series of measures that represent the next big step in making our electronic bill of rights a reality, in four broad and critical areas: sensitive personal information, identity theft, children's privacy, and the voluntary efforts of the private sector.

First of all, we are taking new steps to make sure that people's private medical and financial records are protected.  We live in a nation today where people can get access to you bank accounts and medical records more easily than they can find out what movies you rent at the video store.  Even worse, some patients will not tell their doctors the whole story.  And doctors are now afraid to keep full and accurate medical records.  That is because both patients and doctors fear that misuse of the information can lead to discrimination.  And that is wrong.  Without that confidence, then, we will never have the kind of high quality medical care that Americans need and deserve.

Today I challenge Congress to enact legislation that would restrict the free flow of medical records, and put the power back in the hands of the American people.  But, we are not waiting for Congress.  I am announcing a series of executive actions to tighten and more strictly enforce the privacy laws already on the books.  Our Department of Health and Human Services will soon put forward regulations that provide health plans, health providers, and health care clearing houses, with clearly defined rules about their clients' sensitive medical information, so that this information is secure when it is transmitted electronically.  I want to make special mention of one additional step here that we will take to safeguard people's medical privacy.   As many of you know, two years ago Congress required that we establish standards that complete the creation of new health identifiers, essentially health ID numbers for every single American.   We believe that acting on this requirement before Congress has enacted strong, tough, meaningful medical records privacy legislation, could compromise the privacy of Americans in too many ways. And that is why on behalf of President Clinton, I am announcing today that we will not put this new provision in place until we are certain that American's basic privacy is absolutely protected.  Now, unfortunately, while we are taking new steps to protect and strengthen the privacy of people's medical records, some in Congress would shift us into reverse.  As many of you know, the majority version in the  House of Representatives patients bill of rights contains a number of deeply troubling provisions slipped into the bill at the last minute with no public debate.  It would obliterate the medical privacy guarantees that many states now have on the books.  In fact, it would increase the number of outsiders who can see your health records, and then give them out to others without your consent, even without your knowledge.  I believe that would be a reprehensible step in the wrong direction.  That bill is one of the worst things to happen to privacy since Allen Fundt.   [Laughter.]

I applaud the Members of Congress in both parties who are concerned about this matter and who are taking steps to reverse it.

We are taking several other steps to protect sensitive personal information.  We are directing bank regulators to strengthen to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, to make sure that account holders have chance to give a thumbs up or thumbs down before banks hand out sensitive information about their accounts.  We are working with the Federal Trade Commission to issue a new challenge to companies that use information technology to piece together personal profiles of American citizens, and then sell those profiles for profit.   And here is the message to them.  If you don't find a way to quickly to effectively your own industry, we will take action to make you protect the privacy of Americans.  We are launching a new privacy dialogue with our partners at the state and local level too to find a proper balance between public records and public information.

Now, the second category that I would like to talk about.  We are taking new steps today to stop so called identity theft, that Ann talked about.  Under current law if you go into a store and steal something you are liable to pay some real legal penalties.   But if you a fraud artist who purposely chooses to [inaudible word] personal information, and then steal somebody's identity, there is astonishingly no law to prevent it.  Meanwhile, as we heard so heartbreakingly from Ann Pullium, it can take months, and sometimes years, that she and her family have been at this for three years, to straighten things out.  And, it can take that long and longer for the victims of this crime to straighten out their lives.  This is wrong, and we need tough laws to stop it.  And that is why I call on Congress to pass legislation to crack down on identity theft and make it a federal crime.

I applaud the Senate for late last night to pass the Kyl Leahy bill, and I hope that the House of Representatives will pass legislation, and that the conference committee will resolve the differences, and send to the President legislation before the end of this session to deal with this matter.

In addition, we need to take steps to prevent another abuse of privacy.  Today we say we say very clearly, if you even think about passing yourself off as somebody else to trick a bank into giving you another person's back records, think again.  Under this legislation, we will track you down, we will catch you, and we will punish you with the full force of federal law.

Third, the third area I want to talk about.  We are taking new steps to protect our children's privacy.  Last March the Federal Trade Commission found that 89% of children's websites surveyed collected personal information from children, but only 54% disclosed these practices, and fewer than one in ten sought approval from the parents of the children.  Before children innocently forfeit personal information, parents should have a say.  So today, I call on Congress to pass legislation that gives parents the right to say yes or no before information can be collected from children under the age of thirteen.

Fourth, I am renewing our call today for the private sector to continue its efforts to work towards self-regulation and enforcement.  Since President Clinton issued this call one year ago, many companies have made a good faith effort to respond.  For example, over fifty major companies and associations engaged in electronic commerce recently created the Online Privacy Alliance.  We will continue to monitor the progress of the online industry to make certain that these commitments are kept, and to encourage even more companies to participate in these efforts.

Again I applaud what the FTC is doing, and as Chairman Pitofsky has said the test of this private sector lead effort is how much participation occurs, and how meaningful is the enforcement.

With these aggressive new executive actions, and with the legislation that we are calling for today, and with the renewed focus and intensity that is being brought to this issue throughout the executive branch, with the continued efforts of industry, we are sending a clear message to all Americans.  No matter how our technology grows and changes, your fundamental right to privacy is something that will never change.  All the new advances in electronic commerce, and electronic data sharing, can bring with them new threats to privacy.  As Thomas Jefferson has said so long ago, "Our laws and institutions must move forward hand in hand with the progress of new [inaudible word]."  And in our efforts to protect the privacy of every American citizen we have to have an electronic bill of rights to protect privacy in the electronic age.  These are just the latest steps that we are now taking to make real the electronic bill of rights, that the President and I have called for.  My strong belief is that they will help make America a safer place for our businesses, for our families, and for our children in the 21st Century.  Thankyou very much.  [Applause.]

Press:  Mr. Vice President, do you support the President's decision to testify?  Mr. Vice President, do you support the President's decision? 

[End of Press Conference.]