“Just Too Complicated”

Unfortunately, the brilliance of those technology wizards who created the mechanisms for amassing huge databases full of everyone’s most intimate details seems to have stopped short of coming up with ways to help us reliably review and correct the files they created.

Back in 2000, the FTC appointed an Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security to look at how consumers might be better able to use these new interactive technologies to access the information being collected and stored about them by these interactive technologies.

As the federal agency which regulates credit bureaus and enforces the FCRA and other laws protecting consumers’ rights to access and correct their personal financial data, it’s only natural that they might be interested in the growing panoply of companies who are amassing similar databases.

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Some of the best minds in the country spent months reviewing the twin issues of consumer access to data and best practices in web security.

Their conclusion? It was all too complicated and situation-specific for them to make any concrete recommendations about consumer data access!

But the real story of the committee’s findings is hidden away in the transcripts of their meetings and the various individual opinions submitted by the committee members.

Many of the participants, most notably those representing companies whose profits depend on their unfettered ability to scrape together massive databases for marketing and advertising purposes, seemed quite concerned about the costs to poor database companies of providing secure access.

They also expressed many fears that people might make “inappropriate” edits to their records, deleting information not because it was inaccurate, but because they simply didn’t want the information being stored at all.

The industry’s crocodile tears might be more convincing if they showed as much care in assembling and maintaining accurate data as they do in squeezing every last ounce of profit out of it, no matter how bogus it may be.

Peddling False Information

Judging from my own experiences with the credit reporting agencies, they have undoubtedly made hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars peddling my files to advertisers, not caring for a moment that the files are riddled with stupid errors.

What kinds of errors? Well, until recently, two of the three major credit bureaus showed my “current” address as an apartment I lived in for just one year during college, even as the records also indicated a half-dozen more recent addresses, not to mention a recently issued residential mortgage!

Such absurd incompetence is either exasperating or amusing, depending on one’s mood and circumstances. But when such easily correctable errors in a medical record can result in a patient being given a dangerous drug or unnecessary procedure, the stakes are far higher.

If there is any possibility of a silver lining in the dark clouds of the “perfect storm” represented by medical identity theft, it’s that the stakes have indeed gotten much higher than ever before.

Unfortunately it may require some lurid and tragic story to come to the public’s attention before the politicians are whipped into a sufficient frenzy to get serious about protecting both the integrity of our private records and the principles of access and redress that policymakers claim to hold so dear.