Information Policy Fact Sheet
General Information Policy Issues in Washington State
NOTE: THIS DOCUMENT HAS NOT BEEN UPDATED FOR YEARS. WE LEAVE
IT HERE FOR ITS HISTORICAL VALUE.
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
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
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
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
Summary of CPSR's Position
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
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.
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:
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:
- Freedom of information and public disclosure
- Privacy of personal information
- Fair information practices
- Commercialization and privatization of information resources
- Information resources management in government
- Computer networking
- Intellectual property
- Library and Information Services
- The public has a right to equal and ready access to government
- 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.
- 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.
- Government has an obligation to archive and preserve government
information, regardless of format
- Information requester confidentiality should be protected.
- Privacy implications of new government services should be
identified and addressed.
- The collection of personal data should be limited to the minimum
data necessary for the task or agency involved.
- The transfer of personal information should be restricted to those
who "need to know".
- Agencies should not charge for routine privacy protection.
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
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility - Seattle Chapter
P.O. Box 85481,
Seattle, Washington 98145-1481 (206) 365-4528