ACLU Congratulates People of North Dakota For Defending Their Privacy

June 12, 2002 12:00 am

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Against-All-Odds Victory Against Big-Business Ballot Measure Shows Deep Support For Privacy In Heartland


NEW YORK–The American Civil Liberties Union today congratulated the people of North Dakota for defending their privacy by rejecting a ballot measure that would have allowed banks to share customers’ information without their permission.

“This vote was a stunning defeat for the powerful financial companies who were trying to bamboozle the citizens of North Dakota into acting against their own interests,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “This is a victory for families who wish to keep their private matters private.”

The result in North Dakota is significant not just in that state but nationally, the ACLU said. “If the voters in a small Midwestern state vote for privacy by more than a three-to-one margin despite a deep-pockets media campaign urging them not to, then politicians in Washington and Sacramento and Albany ought to be listening,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

The battle over the ballot measure was a true David-and-Goliath story, Steinhardt said. On one side were wealthy and powerful financial interests, including major national banks and insurance companies. They ran a sophisticated media campaign that included heavy television advertising, and outspent the pro-privacy forces by a factor of at least 6-to-1. In their camp were the editorial pages of two of the state’s largest newspapers, the governor, a former governor, a majority of state legislators, several radio talk show hosts and other influential North Dakotans.

The pro-privacy campaign was waged by a group of citizen-volunteers led by Charlene Nelson, a homemaker and mother of three working out of her home in Casselton. Until a last-minute $25,000 contribution by the ACLU for radio ads, the privacy forces had reported donations of just $2,450.

Despite this lopsided battle, unofficial results posted by the North Dakota secretary of state show that more than 72 percent of those casting ballots voted to protect their privacy.

By rejecting the ballot measure, North Dakota restores its requirement that financial institutions seek affirmative permission from customers (opt-in) before sharing their personal information, which can include details such as their bank balances, withdrawals and deposits, and who they have written checks to. Currently, that kind of sharing is permitted in most states due to a law passed by Congress in 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which gives companies permission to share personal information without customers’ permission (opt-out).

In 2001, financial interests induced the North Dakota legislature to abandon the state’s previous strong privacy law on the false premise that the state’s law had to be brought into conformity with Gramm-Leach-Bliley. However, under the Act, states are permitted to pass stronger privacy protections.

“We hope this result helps make businesses and politicians around the nation realize that Americans don’t like corporations selling details about their personal lives for profit,” Ring said. “Especially bankers, who by tradition used to pride themselves on being discreet and confidential about their customers’ business.”

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