FTC Announces Two Significant Efforts in Its Comprehensive Examination of Consumer Privacy

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The Federal Trade Commission today announced two significant efforts in its examination of consumer privacy issues. First, the Commission announced that it will undertake a study of the collection, compilation, sale and use of data from computer data bases, often referred to as "look-up services," that contain what consumers may consider sensitive identifying information. Second, the Commission announced a four-day public workshop on consumer privacy issues to be held June 10-13, 1997. The workshop will serve to gather information for the new computer data base study and also will update and review the industry’s response to the issues raised in last year’s workshop and the staff report, Consumer Privacy on the Global Information Infrastructure.

A notice describing the public workshop and requesting public comment in connection with the computer data base study and online privacy issues will be published shortly in the Federal Register. Written comments and notifications of interest in participating in the workshop must be submitted on or before April 15, 1997.


The computer data base study responds to concerns raised by the public and members of Congress about data bases that are typically used to locate individuals or develop individual background information. These data bases contain information that consumers may consider sensitive, such as Social Security numbers, current and prior addresses, and dates of birth. Some of these data bases reportedly contain much more information, including an individual’s physical characteristics, property holdings, and family members and neighbors. Customers of these services can simply input information (such as an individual’s name and address) and then obtain a profile of the subject individual containing some or all of this identifying information. Data base operators generally compile and sell this information without the subject individual’s knowledge or consent.

The FTC study will examine the types of information that consumers consider sensitive, as well as their level of concern about the collection of and access to such information. The study will also evaluate the risks and benefits associated with using these data bases. Finally, the study will explore consumers’ privacy concerns regarding the collection and sale of their identifying information. The study will not address computer data bases used primarily for direct marketing purposes, medical and student records, and the use of consumer credit reports for employment purposes.

Session One of the June workshop (June 10) will be devoted to the computer data base study. Participants will discuss relevant issues including: 1) the types of identifying information that consumers may consider sensitive; 2) consumers’ privacy concerns regarding the collection, compilation, sale and use of their identifying information; and 3) the benefits and risks associated with the use of data bases containing sensitive consumer identifying information.

Any person who wishes to apply for participation in this Session of the workshop must file a written comment addressing one or more of the questions set out in the Federal Register under the heading: "Session One: Computerized Data Bases Containing Sensitive Consumer Identifying Information." Commission staff will consider all written comments, including those of non-participants in Session One. The workshop, together with other information-gathering efforts of the Commission, will form the basis of a report to Congress.


As part of the Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Privacy Initiative, Sessions Two (June 11-12) and Three (June 12-13) of the workshop are intended to update the Commission on current practices regarding collection and use of personal information online, including information collected from children, and on self-regulatory efforts and technological developments since June 1996. Session Two addresses the issues related to adults’ personal information, and Session Three to children’s personal information.

In preparation for Sessions Two and Three of the workshop, the Commission’s Federal Register notice asks questions on topics such as:

1) the ways in which personal information, including children’s personal information, is being collected online and subsequently used;  

2) whether and to what extent consumers are aware of such collection and use;  

3) whether and to what extent Web site operators are displaying their information practices and offering consumers choice with respect to how their personal information is to be used;  

4) whether and to what extent industry is addressing online privacy issues through guidelines or other self-regulatory efforts;  

5) the extent to which voluntary industry guidelines and standards in this area are in fact being implemented by commercial Web sites;  

6) the current status of developments in interactive technologies that could facilitate consumer choice in the area of online privacy; and  

7) unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Interested parties who wish to apply for participation in Session Two must file a written comment addressing one or more of the questions listed in the Federal Register notice under the heading "Session Two: Consumer Online Privacy." Those interested in applying for participation in Session Three must file a written comment addressing one or more of the questions listed in the Federal Register notice under the heading "Session Three: Children’s Online Privacy."

Anyone may apply to participate in more than one workshop session. Notifications of interest must specify the session(s) in which participation is sought. Those requesting to be participants will be notified as soon as possible after May 15, 1997, if they have been selected to participate. Workshop sessions are open to parties not selected as participants, as well as to the general public. The workshop will be held in Room 432 of the Commission’s headquarters building, Sixth Street & Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The tentative schedule for the workshop sessions, as well as further instruction on how to file comments, is included in the Federal Register notice.

The Commission vote to authorize the computer data base study and publish the Federal Register notice announcing the public workshop was 5-0.

Copies of the notice, the December 1996 FTC staff report, titled "Public Workshop on Consumer Privacy on the Global Information Infrastructure" and transcripts of the June 1996 workshop are available on the Internet at the FTC’s World Wide Web Site at: http://www.ftc.gov (no period). FTC documents are also available from the FTC’s Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC’s NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.

(FTC File Numbers P974806 and P954807)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Howard Shapiro
Office of Public Affairs