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On Driver's Privacy Protection

Statement of Susan Herman, Executive Director, National Center for Victims of Crime, Before the U.S. Senate Committee Subcommittee on Transportation

April 4, 2000

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Subcommittee. My name is Susan Herman, and I'm the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. The National Center works with 10,000 organizations across the country to help victims of crime rebuild their lives.

Thank you for inviting me to address the important issue of privacy of personal information, specifically, how releasing motor vehicle records impacts victims of crime.

In 1994, the landmark Driver's Privacy Protection Act required states to give licensed drivers the option to keep their contact information confidential, limiting disclosure to narrowly defined purposes. As a result, victims of stalking, battered women, and intimidated witnesses--who need to conceal their whereabouts--were better able to protect themselves.

Unfortunately, because many states required affirmative requests to keep information confidential, many people were still at risk. Without making such a request-- perhaps not knowing the option existed-- personal information remained available to anyone able to pay a nominal fee.

Amy Boyer, a young New Hampshire woman, did not know her life was in danger. Her stalker, a man she barely knew in junior high school, used the Internet to get information about her workplace and her license plate number. With just two pieces of information purchased from Internet companies, he found her and killed her. She never knew she was at risk. Amy Boyer never knew she needed protection.

Over the last few years, we have seen the emergence of a new pernicious crime--identity theft. It thrives on access to personal information.

Identity theft can happen without your knowing it. Your financial security can be shattered. And, victims who obtain a criminal record via identity theft have a particularly difficult time clearing their names.

Mr. Chairman, because of your efforts last year, the law was amended to change the "opt out" provision to an "opt in" provision. In other words, individuals now have to affirmatively waive confidentiality. We applaud you. This effort will prevent harm.

Since enactment of this historic legislation, however, the National Center has come to believe that the scales have tipped much further in the direction of full protection of privacy.

Based on our work with victims of stalking, domestic violence, and identity theft, we recommend that the DPPA be amended again to protect victims. There should be no options. Drivers' personal information should never be released except as outlined in the Act.

The National Center operates a helpline for victims of all types of crime. A large percentage of calls come from stalking victims. One of their principle concerns is that they don't know why they were targeted or how they were found. This is especially true in the 40 percent of stalking cases that don't arise out of a domestic situation. Victims of stranger stalking, at the time they were asked whether the government could release their personal information, may have had no reason to opt for privacy. How many people know that one in twelve women and one in forty-five men in America will be stalked during their lifetime?

We also hear from victims of identity theft who tell us they, too, never realized they were vulnerable. They were simply undergoing normal everyday activities, and their social security number, or other information, fell into the wrong hands. Like the stalking victims, identity theft victims had little reason to believe they needed to protect their records when they made their opt in/opt out decision. How many people know that each year more than 400,000 Americans will be victims of identity theft?

Viewed from a victim's perspective, the opt in/opt out decision we are now offered really only helps people who know they are in danger or understand the risks we all face. We've heard from too many victims who realized too late that their personal information could be used to harm them. That's why, on their behalf, we respectfully request that drivers' personal information, with rare exception, never be released.

In the alternative, we would urge this committee to consider legislation that would require states to notify individuals whenever their information has been released. When citizens give their government the right to release personal information, the government should have an obligation to inform them every time information is released and to whom it is released.

Last year, this committee amended the Transportation Appropriations Bill to include social security numbers within the scope of protected information. Now, social security numbers, like addresses, cannot be released without permission. It is unclear, however, what effect this will have on those states that use social security numbers for the driver's license number, or states that show the social security number on the face of the license. That number is then available every time an individual writes a check, boards a plane, or enters a secured building.

States should be prohibited from including social security numbers on licenses. In this age of technology and identity theft, no one should be required to display their social security number to countless strangers in the course of everyday life.

In summary, we believe the government should not release personal information. If this practice continues, however, the government should at least notify individuals whenever it does release information. And to further decrease the risk of danger, social security numbers should be removed from licenses.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you today on this critical issue. We look forward to working with you as you develop proposals.