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Databases Will Limit Access to Personal Info

Privacy: In a preemptive strike against industry regulation, eight firms pledge to restrict nonpublic information.


Bowing to pressure from privacy rights advocates, eight of the nation's largest consumer database companies have agreed to limit the kinds of information they assemble about ordinary people and more closely monitor who uses that data, industry executives said Monday.

The eight companies, including the well-known Lexis-Nexis online search service, now allow their users to search for people's phone numbers, current and previous addresses and age via a computer connection. Some of the services also provide Social Security numbers, exact birth dates, vehicle registration records and information from property deeds.

Under the agreement, to be announced today at a Federal Trade Commission hearing, the companies will pledge not to augment their records with information from private marketing databases, some of which indicate an individual's magazine subscriptions, shopping preferences and household income, the companies said. Some industry specialists have warned that the combination of such data could lead to a proliferation of dossiers on ordinary Americans.

Privacy advocates had mixed praise for the accord Monday. While they called it a much-needed concession, they noted that it will have limited effect because smaller database companies that didn't sign the agreement currently offer, and will continue to sell, such marketing information, often over the Internet.

The eight companies will also promise to more tightly control in whose hands such information ends up. The firms will limit the distribution of nonpublic information, such as Social Security numbers, to government agencies, law offices and other groups they deem to have a legitimate need for the data, the industry representatives said. Public information, including phone numbers, addresses and vehicle data, which can be gleaned from government records, will be offered to all of the services' customers.

The agreement is meant to be a preemptive strike. The FTC has been asked by Congress to determine whether the online database industry should be regulated. The companies contend that they should be given a chance to police themselves. "Let's see how this works over the next year," Plesser said.

Privacy specialists, many of whom have pushed for greater regulation of the industry, criticized the agreement for failing to provide enforcement. They also predicted that without federal rules, companies that are not part of the agreement will offer profiles of people that include their buying habits.

Ethics guidelines promoted by the Direct Marketing Assn., a group to which many companies that assemble buying-habit databases belong, forbid such information to be sold to online data companies. But some industry experts complained that not all firms comply with the voluntary ban.

The content of online databases has been scrutinized by the public and regulators in the last few years. Last summer, Lexis-Nexis ended up in a public relations firestorm after releasing a person-locator database called P-Trak.

The database initially offered a full rundown of information from the "header" section of credit reports, including an individual's last two addresses, aliases and Social Security number. After complaints, the company blocked the Social Security information and allowed people to have their names deleted from the database.

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