By Sen. Roy Dyson

[ Senator Dyson's Newletter ]

Happy New Year! As we enter the last two years of the millennium there is a lot for our state and country to be thankful for. Our economy, here in Maryland and for the country as a whole, appears to be strong. The 1998 Maryland General Assembly has to decide what to do with a significant surplus, surely a much more pleasant task than dealing with a deficit. So in the 1998 elections in Maryland we are unlikely in campaigning to hear the "E" word ("It's the economy, stupid!").

Instead this could be the election in which the "P" word comes to the foreground. According to recent polls, people are generally concerned about their "Privacy." A recent poll by Money Magazine shows "Nearly three-fourths (74%) of the public are somewhat or very concerned about threats to their privacy, though only 29% have experienced a serious invasion of their financial, medical or personal privacy. And roughly two-thirds (65%) are more worried than they were five years ago."

The same poll shows increasing concern about the release of medical information. An accompanying story in the August, 1997 Money Magazine issue showed that many people feel their medical information is privileged. This is not true. Many people get their hands on information about you. For instance, of the more than half of the Fortune 500 companies polled, at least a third based hiring, promotion and firing decisions on medical information they've secured from companies in the business of getting that information.

A recent case in Maryland shows how concerned people are about privacy. When word got out on the Internet about a new Maryland law allowing driver's license holders to send in $2 to request that information about their driving record be blocked in certain circumstances, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was inundated with requests. In one week alone 53,500 Marylanders asked that the information be blocked.

The problem was exacerbated when some erroneous information about the bill was passed along through E-Mail. But the point is still clear: people don't like information about themselves and their families to be available to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

That new law actually made it more difficult for anyone to get information from DMV about individual drivers. Release of information by DMV has been a routine practice for a number of years. But the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County, has decided the reaction shows that the new law needs to go one step further. He is proposing that the process be reversed.

In a letter to me, Sen. Frosh said, "Except for the limited purposes defined in last year's SB 260, our bill will automatically guard personal information unless the individual says otherwise. The bill will also extend special protections to social security numbers, medical information, and information that describes a person's physical characteristics." I have agreed to cosponsor that bill.

While we were hearing complaints about the release of information by DMV, people also were complaining about the proposed new Bell Atlantic service in which someone could get your address by simply supplying your name. The phone company says anyone can get that information now by looking it up in the phone book. But complete addresses are not always listed and this service sure makes it easier to get the information for some illegal purpose. I hope that Bell Atlantic will reconsider this practice.

In addition to the aforementioned DMV bill, I am sure there will be others proposed for the upcoming 1998 Maryland General Assembly session. This is not just an idea I've jumped onto to take advantage of a perceived election year issue. I've been concerned about personal privacy for a long time. I would like to hear from you if you have been a victim of purloined information or if you have some ideas about other regulatory controls on release of information. Please contact me as soon as possible at my district office, 301-994-2826 or write to P.O. Box 229, Great Mills, MD 20634.

[ Senator Dyson's Newletter ]