San Diego Union-Tribune

Doing even more harm through good intentions

By Lisa S. Dean
July 28, 1999
San Diego Union-Tribune

So, Dad, you've tried to be a good father. You work hard. You always bring home a paycheck. You have supported your wife and kids to the best of your ability. You don't have kids from another marriage who have been neglected. You have never even been late in paying the mortgage or a phone bill.

Well, Dad, I've got news for you. You are part of the deadbeat dads database anyway. That's right. Your employer, by law, is submitting information to the federal government on you every quarter. The government now has a file on you. The government keeps track of where you work, how much money you earn, when you change jobs, and all sorts of other information as well.

But, you protest, because you're not a deadbeat dad. You are anything but a deadbeat dad. You have been a model husband and father. Your wife and children will attest to that. So will your pastor and the neighbors.

It doesn't matter. The government has a file on you anyway. Robert Gellman, a privacy specialist in Washington, calls the deadbeat database the mother of all databases. "All of a sudden," says Gellman, "we're on the verge of creating the Holy Grail of data collection, a central file on every American."

Here we go again. Congress, in its wisdom, created this national database three years ago without a whimper from the opposition. After all, going after deadbeat dads was the right thing to do. Deadbeat dads were crossing state lines and depriving their families of court-ordered support.

Of course we are against that. So, Congress created this national system wherein all working Americans are now part of the files. Never mind that you have never broken the law. Never mind that you aren't a dad. This database collects information on all employees, regardless of sex.

Never mind that because of the way the data have been entered there is a great possibility for error. Already errors have occurred. Innocent people have had their wages frozen. It has taken months to straighten out the problems.

And, of course, there is the problem of the transferring of this data to other agencies, and even the problem of the data being illegally sold to private interests.

Didn't it occur to Congress that before files are collected on all of us, there should have been a cause of action first? In other words, suppose that Jack Schmitz hasn't paid child support payments and it appears that he has moved to another state and is out of reach of state authorities. Shouldn't the government be filing an action on him specifically and shouldn't the search of employers' records be for this particular fellow?

In short, rather than having a huge database where we are all presumed guilty until stamped innocent by a federal agency, why not require that employers check their records for the whereabouts of persons for whom claims may have been filed in a given month?

Employers would be required then to turn over records only  if they find that the offending individual is on their payroll. There could be huge penalties for not doing so. That would have been a way to have gotten at the problem without making us all part of a big-brother database.

But no, Congress rushed ahead with this project and now we are stuck with an electronic dragnet in which we are all caught up.

As Deirdre Mulligan of the Center for Democracy and Technology put it, "It really starts to blur the line between government and the private sector."

Congress is rushing to pass all sorts of new measures, some of which will even expand databases. Before any of these measures is considered, Congress should take a deep breath and should hold oversight hearings on what has already been passed.

Since 1948, when Harry Truman unexpectedly beat the Republicans on a charge of the "do-nothing 80th Congress," congressional leadership has been fearful of that charge. I think the time has come when citizens would appreciate a Congress that doesn't rush to pass more laws, but instead reviews the laws that have already been passed.

This is really the duty of Congress, but it is one that has been terribly neglected over the past several decades.

Congress needs a privacy caucus. This caucus, with members of both parties participating, could take a hard look at these pieces of legislation and how they effect the privacy of ordinary citizens. Such a caucus could slow down the rush to create new databases before seeing how the existing databases are working.

Wade Horn, who heads the National Fatherhood Initiative, has it right. He told The Washington Post  that "what we're now going to do is put a system into place that will track the earnings and comings and goings of the entire adult population of the United States. In a free society, we should always be on the lookout for the possibility we do harm through good intentions."

Amen to Horn's comments. Will Congress ever get it?

Dean is vice president for technology policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.