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'Net Insider:

'A privacy kind of guy'

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 04/23/01            

It looked real bad for privacy lovers. The same Republicans who had been saying good (or at least semi-good) things about protecting our privacy, started to sing another tune once they got in power.

First, Department of Health and Human ServicesSecretary Tommy Thompson was strongly hinting that the active date for the medical-privacy rules that had been too long in coming would be delayed indefinitely.

Then, Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey sent a memo to his House colleagues with the clear message to anyone who might be thinking of proposing pro-privacy legislation to back off. The letter, while ostensibly saying that the U.S. government needed to get its house in order before telling others to do good things, was too full of ridicule to be taken for anything but an antiprivacy manifesto.

We privacy advocates were starting to view the new Bush administration the same way that many environmentalists were, but without the occasional mitigating action.

Still, there is reason for some hope. President Bush "directed" (in the language of the White House announcement) Thompson to let the federal medical-privacy rule become effective on schedule.

The rules do not have to be complied with for two years, so there is plenty of time for your HMO to make a buck selling your medical history to your prospective employer.

In addition, the President created some concern when he asked Thompson "to recommend appropriate modifications to the rule" to address "legitimate concerns" that have been raised about the rule. The only concern President Bush mentioned was allowing parents access to their children's medical records, but the medical industry is busily loading trucks to drive through this loophole.

But other things have happened of late that hopefully will mean such trucks will be somewhat limited in scope.

In what was probably not a total coincidence, the Wall Street Journal published an extensive article showing that Bush is a privacy advocate. The article quoted officials saying Bush will "tend to side with the privacy point of view" and that the President described himself as "a privacy kind of guy" when he made the decision to let the federal medical-privacy rule stand.

The article also quoted an interview Mr. Bush gave shortly before becoming president in which he said he would protect medical records and "make it a criminal offense to sell a person's Social Security number without his or her express consent." Good stuff!

The proof will be a while in coming. Will the President help Armey see the light or will the medical industry win out? This is but a little skirmish in a long battle to give people power over information about themselves. The battle will go on for years to come.

Disclaimer: Harvard has a new president coming on board soon, but I have no idea what his opinion or the opinion of the university is on the above topic.

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