Snooping On Behalf Of The Right To Privacy

A book exposes Dan Rather's credit file to prove how easy it is to do

It's a topsy-turvy case. On one side is Journalist A, who advocates tighter controls on the release of information about consumers. To prove his point, he may have invaded someone else's privacy. His target is Journalist B, well-known as a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. He, in turn, goes to great lengths to prevent the information about himself from being published.

It all stems from a forthcoming book, Privacy For Sale. In it, author Jeffrey Rothfeder, a former BUSINESS WEEK editor, describes how he surreptitiously obtained the credit report and charge-card data, among other items, of CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather. When he learned of the disclosures, Rather put his attorneys to work: Publisher Simon & Schuster delayed the book's publication date for about two months while the two sides haggled over what would be printed, Rothfeder says. A spokesman for the publisher says that the delay was caused by editing the Rather material.

ODD CASE. Now, the book is set for release in August. Rothfeder says he was forced to rewrite parts of the manuscript and to omit details about where Rather lives, shops, and dines, and the amounts he spent. Still included is information about Rather's mortgage, credit history, and general shopping and dining habits. His Social Security number and credit card numbers were never included.

Rothfeder says he collected Rather's data to make a point: that it's too easy for just about anyone to obtain such information, using ordinary PCs. This isn't the first time Rothfeder has tapped into the records of a prominent person. For a 1989 BUSINESS WEEK cover story, he obtained a copy of Vice-President Dan Quayle's credit report. BUSINESS WEEK disclosed only tidbits of Quayle data, including his habit of shopping at Sears, Roebuck & Co. The article prompted Equifax Inc., the keeper of Quayle's record, to tighten its policy concerning third parties that resell its reports, says John A. Baker, senior vice-president of Equifax, one of the three corporations that maintain credit data on most Americans.

The Rather case is unusual for several reasons. While it's common for people mentioned in a book to demand manuscript changes, "given all their legal protection, publishers rarely change something simply because of threats," says Richard Kurnit, a New York publishing lawyer.

It's equally rare for a high-profile journalist such as Rather, who has spent a career reporting about other people's activities, to raise issues of personal privacy. Through a CBS spokeswoman, Rather says that he was "concerned that the information was gathered illegally or through criminal acts."

Getting such data for anything other than a legitimate business purpose is illegal under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, says Lucy Morris, assistant director of credit practices at the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers, for instance, would first have to commit to buying a car or a house before a business could get their financial data, she says.

Rothfeder denies he did anything illegal, saying he retrieved the data for his book, which is a "business purpose." He says he got the Rather data with help from an outlaw information broker. He says that "John Branch," the information broker in his book, is a composite character. The broker supplied access codes so Rothfeder could use a PC to get a copy of Rather's Equifax credit report.

HARD TO PROVE. The CBS spokeswoman says Rather has no plans to take further legal action, though Rothfeder says Rather has refused to sign an agreement precluding a lawsuit. Legal experts say Rather wouldn't have much of a case anyway. To win an invasion of privacy suit, the news anchor would have to prove damages and show that the information was intentionally harmful. "That's a very hard case to make," says Janlori Goldman, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The episode may stir more controversy about how private consumer information really is. "The [Quayle] experience was educational for us," says Equifax's Baker of Rothfeder's first scoop. "But I'm surprised that he did it again." To consumers, what might be surprising--no, dismaying--is that Rothfeder didn't have much trouble doing it again.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE