ID theft case sparks search for new fixes

WASHINGTON – The report about the computer equipment stolen last month from the home of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs analyst has breathed new life into the 16-month debate over how to create new safeguards against identity theft.

But fear about the misuse of this new stolen data, which include information on close to 26.5 million veterans and 1.1 million active duty personnel, could trump competing bills that address data security more broadly and have been in the works since February 2005.

“The VA breach has sparked more of an interest on Capitol Hill,” said Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

Since the VA breach was reported, lawmakers have introduced roughly 10 bills in the House, one as recently as Friday. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who heads the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has announced five hearings this month related to the stolen computer and data security.

“We must act promptly, yet we must also understand what went wrong at VA so that we can prevent it from happening again,” he said earlier this month. “We will conduct an aggressive series of hearings to give us the information we need to both remedy any harm done to veterans by this incident and fix the problems in the system.”

His committee is expected to vote on a bill in the next month – possibly by July 4 – but it is unclear how broad or narrow that legislation might be. A Buyer spokesman didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday.

Identity-theft concerns exploded on Capitol Hill in February 2005 when ChoicePoint Inc. announced it might have improperly sold the personal information of 145,000 people. Since then, dozens of banks, insurance companies, universities and retailers have also reported data-security breaches.

“Every now and then, there’d be a security breach that made the news,” Montezemolo said. “There was nothing huge until the VA breach hit. That changed the landscape.”

Other committees have been working on data security legislation this year. Separate bills passed by both the House Financial Services Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have tried to address identity theft more broadly, and Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, is expected to introduce a bill to the Senate Banking Committee later this week.

One major difference between the two House bills is whether a federal standard should trump the policies recently established in 23 states regarding credit freezes. Almost all of these state laws would allow customers who have lost personal information to freeze their credit reports, which would prevent anyone from opening up a new credit-card account or obtaining any sort of loan.

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