RealTime IT News

Gates' Washington Trip a Privacy Affair

WASHINGTON -- After spending his morning testifying before Congress about America's shortcomings in the global competitiveness race, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates concluded his policy trip to Washington Wednesday night by calling for a uniform national privacy standard.

Keynoting a dinner hosted by the Center for Democracy and Technology, Gates said consumers deserve laws that provide personal control over the data collected about them and transparency about how the data is collected.

"A uniform privacy law would be a strong milestone," Gates told almost 1,000 diners that included top officials from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Gates' call for national privacy standards comes after two years of Congressional debate over the issue. During that time, lawmakers have been unable to pass any legislation requiring either the government or the private sector to better protect sensitive personal data held in their databases.

Congress has also been in a stalemate over proposed data-collection notices to consumers and notifying consumers about data breaches. In the new Congress, several data-protection bills have been introduced to set the stage for another round of debate.

Gates acknowledged privacy is a "tough challenge" since issues of national security "relies on some degree of retaining data," noting that consumers want as much privacy as possible while law enforcement officials need access to certain information to track terrorist and other criminal activity.

"These privacy issues are not as easy as you might think," he said.

Flashing some rare humor from his normal somber Washington persona, Gates even said Congress might not "get it right" the first time around, referring to the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) that mandates tight controls over the release of patient data.

"All I know is that I keep signing those forms again and again," he told the crowd at the downtown Ritz-Carlton.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who gave some brief remarks before Gates' keynote, also called for privacy legislation. Leahy said Congress has an "analog mindset to privacy in a digital age."

A longtime privacy advocate and now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy remarked that he was well aware of the fast pace of technology, noting that 20 years ago he and his fellow lawmakers thought e-mail could be permanently deleted.

"I don't want to stop technology, but I want to protect privacy," he said.

Leahy also said he would be would be re-introducing the Personal Data and Privacy Act, legislation he and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) unsuccessfully pushed in the last Congress. The bill would make it a crime to intentionally or willfully conceal a security breach. The bill would also increase criminal penalties for identity theft involving electronic personal data.

It would also require businesses and government agencies to give notice to individuals and law enforcement in cases of breaches involving sensitive personal data.

Also of concern to Leahy is the ongoing controversy of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretaps of telephone calls and e-mail.

"As government wants to know more and more about us, they want to tell us less and less about what they already know about us," he said.

Echoing the evening's theme of the wonders of the Internet and the privacy challenges it presents, Leahy said, "Let's make sure it [the Internet] serves us and not the other way around."