Benjamin Barr

Be concerned over financial privacy issue

Posted on February 17, 2008 | Type: In the News | Author: Benjamin Barr
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What's the value of your financial privacy? You know, things like your checking account and banking records. For most of us, the less others know, the better. That's why it comes as such a surprise that Arizona rates near the bottom of states when it comes to protecting such privacy.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Arizona is the No. 1 state for identity theft. And a private research firm reports that the identity of one in six Arizona adults was stolen in the past five years. So, it was a good first step when the Arizona Legislature passed legislation in 2007 to limit the release of personal information available in public records. This legislation protected against sensitive information like Social Security numbers being released by government bodies.

However, it's not just identity thieves Arizonans should be worried about. Government employees are legally allowed to access the personal financial records of citizens. Most states protect against potential abuse of this law, but Arizona does not.

About 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, under the Constitution, citizens had no expectation of privacy in their banking records. Congress reacted by passing the Right to Financial Privacy Act (RFPA) to change that. That law was limited in that it protected citizens only against the federal government's prying eyes.

Most states were proactive and passed legislation to require search warrants and the use of standard judicial process to obtain confidential banking or financial information. Unfortunately, Arizona was not one of them.

In the Grand Canyon State, just about any government bureaucrat can delve into your banking and financial records. But it needn't be that way. Under RFPA, the federal government must demonstrate probable cause to obtain a search warrant to access financial records.

Most other states demand the same. Why shouldn't Arizonans be protected equally against the prying eyes of state or local government officials acting without probable cause?

The Legislature is considering a simple step to remedy this. Senate Bill 1588 requires government bodies to demonstrate probable cause to obtain a warrant should they wish to search or seize financial records. This isn't something new - it's what we ordinarily ask government to do before it delves into our private affairs.

Some may ask whether we really need a law protecting our private financial information from government. Sure we do.

In 2004, the Clean Elections Commission subpoenaed the bank records of a consultant to a legislative candidate and got them without a search warrant or having to follow due-process rules. The commission shouldn't be allowed to look at a candidate's personal financial records without a warrant, much less a person advising a candidate.

Bureaucrats should be subject to the same scrutiny, if not more, than their private counterparts when it comes to taking a peak at your financial records. What's more, as governmental regulation over private affairs increases, government employees have more and more excuses to invade your financial records - all without probable cause.

The Arizona Constitution was designed to give our citizens more, not less, protection against just these kinds of searches. But the heightened protection offered by the Arizona Constitution has been watered down by state judges. The only redress citizens have is at the Legislature or through the initiative process. By simply requiring probable cause, as we do in most any other type of search or seizure, government must demonstrate it has a valid need to invade your privacy before it is granted permission to do so.

The idea of demanding probable cause, or some justifiable excuse, before the government can pry into your financial records isn't exactly revolutionary. The American tradition purposefully safeguards citizens from government intrusion. That doesn't stop the police or investigators from doing their jobs. It only requires government to respect basic constitutional rights and the privacy of citizens.

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