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The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Jan. 14 filed a suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. against the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury seeking information to establish that the federal government has purchased sensitive electronic personal data about citizens from private companies. If EPIC succeeds in obtaining the information it alleges exists, fears of privacy invasion will be taken to yet another level. PLAINTIFF EPIC EPIC is a public interest non-profit research organization based in Washington, D.C. It was founded in 1994 with the stated purpose of focusing public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and protecting privacy, the First Amendment and constitutional values. EPIC’s projects include the review of federal data collection and sharing policies. EPIC has submitted reports, presented testimony, and organized conferences on privacy issues. THE GOVERNMENT DEFENDANTS DOJ is an executive branch department and its component entities include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Services, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Treasury also is an executive branch department and its component entities include the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. ALLEGED GOVERNMENT PRIVATE DATA PURCHASES EPIC alleges that on April 13, 2001, The Wall Street Journalreported that executive branch agencies were purchasing “troves of personal data from the private sector.” According to EPIC’s complaint, the article quoted government sources for the assertion that DOJ, FBI, USMS, INS, and IRS employees had electronic access to citizens’ assets, driving records, telephone numbers, and other personal information from their desktop computers. The article supposedly reported that ChoicePoint, a publicly held company, and some of its competitors were providing individuals’ personal information to as least as many as 35 federal agencies. EPIC alleges that “the use of private sector databases of personal information enables the government to obtain detailed information on citizens while avoiding the creation of files that would implicate protections provided under the Privacy Act of 1974.” DEMANDS FOR INFORMATION In June 2001, EPIC submitted letters under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the DOJ, FBI, USMS, DEA, INS, IRS, and ATF, demanding “all records relating to transactions, communications, and contracts concerning businesses that sell individuals’ personal information.” EPIC alleges that to date, almost seven months later, the vast majority of these demands have not been satisfied with responsive records, notwithstanding that FOIA requires an agency response within 20 days of demand. THE LAWSUIT Based on the alleged failure of the government to provide responsive information with respect to EPIC’s FOIA demands, EPIC filed suit against the DOJ and the Treasury last week. EPIC seeks all of the demanded records, “expeditious” court proceedings, as well as its attorneys’ fees and legal costs. WAIT AND SEE The public already has serious concerns about how private companies electronically gather personal data and what is done with the data once it is assembled. Moreover, the Federal Trade Commission has investigated unfair and deceptive business practices having to do with the electronic handling of personal data. In this context, it would be ironic indeed to learn that the federal government is using the personal data gathered electronically by private companies. We may have to wait and see the outcome of EPIC’s lawsuit before we know the full story. Eric J. Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris, where he focuses on technology and litigation matters. His Web site is sinrodlaw.com and his firm’s site is Duane Morris.Mr. Sinrod may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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