WASHINGTON - New consumer privacy protection rules have already been drafted, and a formal proposal will be released in February, Treasury Department officials said Thursday.
Gary Gensler, Treasury under secretary for domestic finance, said in an interview that 30 to 40 officials representing eight federal agencies have met five times since President Clinton signed the financial reform bill last month. He predicted a final rule will be ready by the law's May 12 deadline and that it will "very likely" take effect on time in November. (The privacy regulations are supposed to kick in Nov. 12, but the law gave regulators the option of delaying implementation if necessary.)
"So far, all the agencies are working off the same page," he said.
The new law requires financial institutions to have and annually disclose policies for protecting confidential customer information, bars them from sharing credit card or other account numbers with third-party marketers, and gives customers the chance to block banks and others from sharing private data with third parties.
Mr. Gensler said the White House will offer tougher privacy legislation early next year that would let customers block data sharing among holding company affiliates too. The Treasury also plans to finish a sweeping study on the privacy practices of financial institutions by the end of 2000, or a year ahead of schedule.
Regulators want to make significant progress during the lull of the congressional recess, which is scheduled to last until Jan. 24. But the political calm was abruptly disturbed Thursday by Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes, who attacked the Clinton-Gore administration for pushing what he described as a big-government privacy agenda.
Mr. Forbes did not mention the reform law's provisions and made few references to private-sector practices, blasting instead the administration's controversial medical privacy proposal and the way the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies handle personal information. But the speech underscored how explosive privacy issues could be in an election year.
Using an example familiar to the banking industry, Mr. Forbes criticized the failed "know your customer" plan as a misguided administration attempt to stem money laundering.
"It would have, in effect, deputized every bank employee as an agent of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]," he said in a speech here to the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Technology Policy. "Do we need to be vigilant against white-collar crime? Of course we do. But we don't need to throw out the Constitution and violate everyone's privacy in the process."
Republican front-runner George W. Bush supports the reform law's privacy provisions, a campaign spokeswoman said Thursday. She declined to say whether Mr. Bush would push for stricter measures. Calls to Vice President Gore's campaign office were not returned.
But the Clinton administration is expected to push hard next year to toughen limits on the use of customer data. "We think consumers ought to have the right to say 'no' " to telemarketers calling at dinnertime or companies trying to profile their spending habits, Mr. Gensler said.
Regulators implementing the law's privacy dictates have wide latitude to define "nonpublic" personal information and who constitutes a "customer," as well as how broadly to draw exceptions for sharing of information between small banks and joint venture partners.
Mr. Gensler said regulators would take a commonsense approach that can be enforced consistently.