Attorney General Greg Abbott's support for more stringent privacy laws is getting some notice, as privacy rights activists say his proposals would lead to more protections for Texans. But concerns tied to the enforcement of the proposed policies are also being raised.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate has recommended requiring state agencies that collect personal information to acquire individual consent before selling or releasing any data, and he has proposed granting individuals property rights over their DNA information.
Deborah Peel, founder and chairwoman of Patient Privacy Rights, said Abbott’s proposals would give residents unprecedented control over DNA and private information in the state. The disclosure of medical information has harmed individuals because it can lead to discrimination from third parties, including health insurance providers and employers, Peel said.
“My whole career has been watching how people’s lives are ruined because their medical information is disclosed. I’m happy to see he’s seen [this information] is not safe,” Peel said, adding that the policies would need to be accompanied by “adequate enforcement" to be effective.
Abbott has described his privacy proposals as a pushback against federal and state efforts to turn government “into Big Brother.” In his proposal announcement, Abbott singled out the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles for collecting $2.1 million in 2012 by selling information on Texas drivers from its database to more than 2,500 clients, including collection agencies, towing companies, banks and private investigators.
Adam Shaivitz, a DMV public information officer, pointed out that the department’s disclosure procedures were in line with both the state’s Motor Vehicle Records Disclosure Act and the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.
Bartlett Cleland of the Lewisville-based Institute for Policy Innovation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, said the proposals would help reduce the government’s power over personal information.
Under Abbott’s proposals, state agencies looking to release or sell personal information would be required to provide individuals with a means to opt out. Cleland disagreed with the method, though, saying an opt-in system would be the better option because it provides individuals with a “plain” way of knowing what “they’re signing up for.”
Abbott’s proposal, part of his larger “We the People” policy initiative, also included recommendations prohibiting the resale of personal information to third parties and the use of cross-reference techniques, or methods to re-identify an individual in a "de-identified" data set, to identify individuals whose data is used in larger online databases.
Cleland acknowledged that the policies would require additional state oversight and would create the need for “additional definitions and parameters” to explain how each policy would work to avoid confusion or unintended consequences.
Lynn Blais, a property law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, questioned Abbott’s DNA rights proposal, saying it lacked a detailed explanation, and she said it was unclear what problem the attorney general intends to solve.
“I think it would be a better approach to current concerns about DNA use if we approached it from a privacy lens,” Blais said, adding that a property right over DNA did not solve issues related to access, including law enforcement officers' ability to swab an individual's cheek if he or she is arrested. “This doesn’t solve problems people are currently seeing.”
Abbott has been criticized in the past over the issue of privacy rights.
Last year, his office accidentally released millions of Social Security numbers of Texas voters when a voter database provided to lawyers challenging the state’s voter ID law disclosed the personal information.
A spokesman for state Sen. and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis questioned Abbott’s credentials when it comes to privacy, citing the Social Security number blunder in the campaign's response to Abbott’s proposals.
"Greg Abbott's record demonstrates that Texans can't trust Greg Abbott to protect their privacy," said Bo Delp, a spokesman for Davis. "Greg Abbott exposed millions of Texans to identity theft and breached his responsibility to protect them pursuing a political agenda. Now he is playing politics again to cover up his record and hope Texans will forget his failure."
Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said Davis' support of the federal Affordable Care Act and its accompanying federal navigators, who are helping Texans sign up for health insurance through the federal marketplace, is a larger privacy threat to Texans.
The attorney general has previously requested additional state oversight of navigators on the basis of privacy concerns.
"Big government, in which Sen. Wendy Davis places her trust, is the most enduring threat to privacy and individual liberty," Hirsch said.
“I’m showing, if you would, a new kind of Republican candidate,” Abbott told the NE Tarrant Tea Party during his announcement. “One that is very substantive. One that has a lot of policy details.”