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Seattle CPSR/General FAQ
Seattle CPSR
Information Policy Fact Sheet
General Information Policy Issues in Washington State



Information policy attempts to address the rapid introduction of computer technology in the collection, dissemination, and archiving of information by the government, as well as by private information collectors and providers. Unfortunately, information policy being proposed by all levels of government is not necessarily guaranteeing equal access amongst all possible information users, nor is it guaranteeing our civil liberties or privacy.

What Are The Issues?
One of the fundamental tenets of American democracy is that all citizens have a basic right of access to information collected and produced by local, county, state, and federal governments.

Access - Who has access to information and how much, if anything, should it cost? Do public agencies have a right to charge for information collected at the taxpayer's expense? Do consumers have an opportunity to see information collected about them? How can democracy be enhanced by access to government information? What kinds of access assure equity in the distribution of information?

Civil Liberties - Does electronic information have all the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment? Should people who commit crimes with computers be subject to unreasonable search and seizure at gun point? Are people who run electronic bulletin boards liable for the content of the material that is distributed on the bulletin boards?

Privacy - Who has the right to collect personal information and disseminate it, e.g., credit reports, personal health information, school records, buying habits, social security information?

There have been steps forward and away from government information policy that maintains public access as essential to democracy. The Printing Act of 1895 allocated money to distribute government documents. The Communications Act of 1924 declared an explicit policy of providing universal access to telephone service. However, the interpretation of the Paper Work Reduction Act of 1980 has lead to user fees and privatization (and more fees) of access to Federal information collected at taxpayers' expense. City count, and state governments are now developing "information policy" that allows them to become information entrepreneurs by selling government reports, geographic information system data, and other information that used to available by simply walking up to the agencies' windows.

Information Policy In Washington State - Some Recent Examples

  • Metro's Magnetic Stripe Bus Passes
    Policy: Metro recently introduced new bus passes that contain a "magnetic stripe". Riders are required to slide their bus pass through a magnetic reader each time they board a Metro bus.
  • Issue: While providing Metro with worthwhile bus pass validation capabilities, this policy represents a potential invasion of privacy. Riders are not told what information is being encoded and collected, nor are they told how it will be used. Since data collection appears to be mandatory, riders have no control over the information being collected. While Metro claims that they currently cannot track "any individual" (Seattle Times, 3/6/94), Metro has expressed interest in marketing individual rider information back to employers who buy bus passes for their employees. Further, if other organizations can use bus pass "stripes" for additional purchase capabilities, the potential for a marketable "commuter profile" expands.

  • Seattle Public Library Policy
    Policy: Seattle Public Library proposed developing services (e.g., bibliographic searches) for which fees would be charged.

    Issue: Should public libraries be allowed to charge fees for services? CPSR thinks not; public libraries have always been, amongst other things, points of dissemination of government information in the most appropriate, cost-effective format for the public.

  • State of Washington Policy
    Policy: Bills were proposed in the 1993 Washington State Legislative session to require the use of the Social Security Number on driver's licenses and as a unique public school student identifier.

    Issue: CPSR has strong views on the use of the SSN as a identifier for purposes other than it was originally intended - social security and tax identification. The central problem with the use of the SSN as an identifier is that is allows organizations to obtain information about individuals with whom there may be no prior relationship. Widespread misuse of the SSN to coalesce different kinds of data about a person already exists.

Summary of CPSR's Position
The Seattle CPSR Information Policy Special Interest Group (Info-SIG) seeks to address public policy issues relevant to the collection, storage, and distribution of information. Issues areas include:
  • Freedom of information and public disclosure
  • Privacy of personal information
  • Fair information practices
  • Commercialization and privatization of information resources
  • Information resources management in government
  • Telecommunications
  • Computer networking
  • Intellectual property
  • Library and Information Services
The Seattle CPSR Info-SIG has developed a set of principles against which the openness and access to information can be measured, and by which our privacy can be protected:
  1. The public has a right to equal and ready access to government information.
  2. Government information should be disseminated in a format that is the most appropriate for agencies, libraries, and the general public, i.e., in a format that encourages people to use government information and enhances democracy.
  3. Fees charged for acquiring or using government information must be less than or limited to the marginal cost of dissemination. Government information available for a fee should always be available, in some reasonable form, for no fee at locations such as public libraries or public networks.
  4. Government has an obligation to archive and preserve government information, regardless of format
  5. Information requester confidentiality should be protected.
  6. Privacy implications of new government services should be identified and addressed.
  7. The collection of personal data should be limited to the minimum data necessary for the task or agency involved.
  8. The transfer of personal information should be restricted to those who "need to know".
  9. Agencies should not charge for routine privacy protection. CPSR Actions
    Seattle CPSR comments on existing and proposed policies, organizes informational sessions, and creates new forms of public access (e.g., Seattle Community Network project). The national CPSR organization maintains a Washington D.C. office that focuses on privacy and civil liberties issues: it files Freedom of Information requests and brings lawsuits against Federal agencies to obtain information about proposed laws and regulations, testifies at Congressional hearings, starts grassroots action on national issues, and organizes conferences and discussions on Community Networks, Cryptography, and Computers, Freedom and Privacy.

    Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility - Seattle Chapter
    P.O. Box 85481,
    Seattle, Washington 98145-1481 (206) 365-4528

tagged by gene chung-ngai moy, CPSR-LA

12:22 AM PST on 11/11/96

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