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Privacy agencies say don’t worry: Consumer bureau is no spy

Fred Williams

Lately the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been accused of “warrantless”  collection of your financial records. A congressional committee duly held a hearing last week.

“This is every bit as serious as the controversy over the NSA’s activities,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said in a news release.

Claims that the government is spying on us are bound to hit a nerve, following revelations about the National Security Agency peeking at our telephone records.

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So we checked with established privacy groups that are on the lookout for incursions into our personal spheres.

The bottom line: The consumer bureau is not something they lie awake worrying about.

“If there’s any government agency I would say is doing a really, really good job in terms of consumer protection, it’s the CFPB,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. The nonprofit advocacy group has looked at the consumer bureau’s collection of complaint data and filed an official comment in 2012 that supported the agency.

“I am not aware of any privacy or consumer group that has raised these issues,” said David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC has taken on the NSA in court over its telephone record collection, as part of its focus on government intrusions on privacy.

“If Congress was truly concerned with consumer privacy, they should pass comprehensive consumer privacy legislation,” Jacobs added.

Then there is the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which focuses on consumer issues. Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski is upset — but not at the CFPB. He’s mad that the bureau’s political foes are concocting a scare campaign to undermine it.

“Actually, it’s the banks, not the CFPB, conducting ongoing surveillance on consumers,” he said in a blog post. “The CFPB merely studies data to make markets work better.”

The consumer bureau is collecting data on people’s financial history, but without attaching that data to their names or identities. The anonymous data is for research, not surveillance, agency officials said. Assistant Director Stephen Antonakes reiterated that in testimony before Congress, repeating the explanation that bureau officials have given in the past.

The contract documents that Judicial Watch obtained from the agency also make clear that the data being supplied to the agency is anonymous. “The panel shall contain the contents of the select consumers’ credit files except for data elements such as name, address, full account number, that need to be masked to preserve confidentiality,” the CFPB’s contract documents state.

Studying credit files of randomly chosen consumers is something that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has been doing for years. Its quarterly Household Debt and Credit Report, based on 40 million credit profiles from Experian, has not been a focus of privacy concerns. Experian and the other big credit bureaus are keeping this same information, after all. And they sell it — along with your name and identifying information — to banks, debt collectors and other businesses.

So why is the heat on the consumer agency? The CFPB is in the middle of a political battle. Republicans are dug in against confirming Director Richard Cordray, who was nominated by President Barack Obama. A vote on the confirmation expected today could set off an even larger dispute over Senate rules.

There’s a saying that truth is the first casualty of war. This political battle has roughed up the truth about the consumer protection bureau — it’s no relation to the NSA.

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