Stateline Story

Privacy Issue Draws Intense Interest In Wisconsin

Both political parties in Wisconsin are eager to ease citizen worries about the invasion of privacy, a popular issue these days.

GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson already has a Privacy Task Force looking into the sensitive issue. Thompson's 14-member task force, which faces a Feb. 29 deadline, is assigned the job of developing a comprehensive plan to give Wisconsinites more control over their own personal information.

"I am confident that the task force members will help make sure that Wisconsinites are protected from the undesirable distribution and use of personal information," Thompson said.

Meanwhile, the majority Democrats in the state Senate are planning to push through a package of privacy legislation. They're following the direction of Democratic state Rep. Marlin Schneider, the assistant minority leader in the state Assembly, who long has championed the cause. For years his calls were largely ignored, but now privacy has become a politically popular issue.

Leading the effort in the state Senate is Jon Erpenbach, a freshman lawmaker from the Madison suburb of Middleton who successfully raised the issue in his 1998 election campaign. Erpenbach said his interest in the issue was not based on recent revelations that certain states sold driver license photos. Instead, he was motivated by the constant calls from telemarketers. The more he looked into it, the more he found that telemarketers were operating on information he never imagined could be obtained.

Erpenbach and his Senate privacy committee have launched an effort to compile a "data inventory of state government" to find out what happens to information when a citizen fills out a state form for a driver's license, a hunting or fishing license or some other kind of permit. The hearings will run through mid-September.

"We're not filling out these forms so we can get six or seven telemarking calls a night," Erpbenbach said. "In this information age, we've never taken an inventory. It's important to know who's buying it and who's looking at this information through state government. Overall the big question is who owns that information. When I fill out a form, do I own it or does the state? I think I own it."

Erpenbach said he wants every form to at least carry a check-off box that citizens could use to keep their information confidential.

Among the proposals on Erpbenbach's ambitious agenda are measures that would: ban access to Social Security numbers with open records requests; limit telemarketing and data entry by prisoners; prohibit the state Department of Transportation from mass release of personally identifiable information; create a consumer privacy advocate in the state Department of Justice; bar the printing of social security numbers on state time cards and benefit statements; ban the trading of information between state agencies unless authorized by the Legislature; and regulate the release of personal information from state agencies relating to minors.

Erpenbach also is seeking to regulate citizen information in the hands of financial institutions, credit card companies and even supermarkets. He held a recent hearing on a bill that would place privacy controls on information gathered by grocers from frequent shoppers who voluntarily participate in discount card programs. The industry claims it doesn't sell or give away the information, but tracks buying habits for giving bonus gifts or coupons to customers for frequently bought items.

Erpenbach said he isn't trying to take away people's discount shopping cards. But he's worried about any industry that holds information that could be used to profile people. At the hearing, grocery industry officials revealed that they keep records of customers' most frequent purchases for 65 weeks. "I don't think anybody should know what I'm buying and keep it for 65 weeks," Erpenbach argued.

He's also looking at other measures that would require tax preparers, banks and others to destroy papers with personal information before throwing them away; require consent and notification on credit report requests and ban financial institutions from selling personal information without customers' consent.

The push by Senate Democrats comes as many rural Republican lawmakers wrestle with complaints from people outraged over a state requirement that anglers and hunters give their Social Security numbers when applying for licenses. The requirement stems from a federal threat to withhold $318 million in aid to needy families if Wisconsin doesn't require the numbers so officials can track down "deadbeat dads" who don't pay child support.

Amish teen-agers in southwestern Wisconsin have stopped hunting rather than give Social Security numbers. They don't get numbers until they're old enough to be a church member and once a member, they have the ability to file a religious exemption form. One business in Amish country has been cited for entering false Social Security numbers so teen-agers could get a license.