Big Brother Wants to Hawk Your Secrets

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It's one of those things you don't even share with your best friends -- how much you earn. Well, in California that nugget of personal information could soon be up for sale to banks, mortgage lenders, car dealers and other potential creditors -- by none other than the government. The program, authorized by a little-noticed state law passed last summer, and headlined by the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, could eventually rake $15 million into state coffers. "When the news leaked out," reports TIME Los Angeles correspondent Dave Jackson, "it caused an immediate backlash here." Proponents of the program point out that individuals would have to give their consent before their income information is revealed, but critics doubt the safeguards. "Recent computer hacker incidents donít help inspire much confidence," says Jackson.

"The California program is part of a bigger trend," says Jackson. "A number of states around the country are looking for additional revenues through ways that may unfortunately compromise privacy." Programs similar to the California plan already exist in Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. And the state sale of information is not limited to salary numbers. A major lawsuit is up before the Supreme Court over whether states may continue to sell, as many do, personal information such as addresses and Social Security numbers derived from driversí licenses. South Carolina is challenging, on the basis of states rights, a federal law that would stop the release of such motor vehicle information. Privacy watchdogs hope that the courtís decision, which is expected to come down next term, will also have something to say about individual rights -- and put a halt to the release of such information.