News Release: WPF Publishes New Report on Government Use of Commercial Data Brokers

San Diego 30 October, 2013:  Today the World Privacy Forum published a report discussing the federal government’s use of commercial data brokers, the implications for that usage, and what needs to be done to address privacy problems. The report argues that the government must bring itself fully to heel in the area of privacy, explaining that when government outsources its data needs to commercial data brokers, it needs to also attach the privacy standards it would have been held to if it had collected the data itself. Outsourcing can no longer be an excuse for evading privacy obligations.

“One of the problems with government use of commercial data brokers occurs when information about individuals is inaccurate, and then the government bases one or more high life-impact decisions about things like receiving government benefits or payments based on that information. At that point, you have a data nightmare, and it can be hard to straighten out,” says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.

To highlight privacy problems and opportunities for reform in the uses of data brokers by government, the report discusses the US Treasury’s Do Not Pay portal , which is being used as a central hub to verify and check on the eligibility of individuals to receive government benefits, such as those receiving food stamps, housing assistance, and survivor benefits. The portal includes government-operated databases with information about individuals, databases that are usually subject to the Privacy Act of 1974. However, the Do Not Pay portal also includes information from a commercial database called The Work Number. The Work Number, owned by Equifax, is not a government-held database and is not subject to the Privacy Act.

New guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has expanded the government use of commercial data brokers for the Do Not Pay portal. Recognizing the potential for harm and the shortcomings of using private databases, the Office of Management and Budget took the novel and long-requested step of issuing new guidance that establishes privacy standards for commercial data brokers used in the Do Not Pay Portal, such as The Work Number. The new standards extend some of the privacy requirements applicable to the federal government to commercial databases that the government uses.

“The new OMB standards are a good first step, but they need to take things a lot further and apply all Fair Information Practices instead of just a few, and apply them across all government use of data brokers. The Work Number is still in the pilot phase, so we also have to ensure that agencies will apply the new OMB rules they are supposed to before they can permanently include these kinds of databases in this program,” said Dixon.

This report is Part III in a three-part series of reports concerning data brokers that World Privacy Forum is publishing. Parts I and II are forthcoming. This report is available at, which is also where updates and further parts of the series will be published.


Pam Dixon
+1 760.470.2000