U.S. high court declines to hear privacy lawsuit against Thomson Reuters

WASHINGTON Mon Oct 21, 2013 3:20pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider whether a unit of Thomson Reuters Corp can obtain and sell information on drivers provided by state agencies without violating a federal privacy law.

The decision not to hear the matter represented a win for the commercialization of publicly available information, although U.S. law remains mixed on the subject.

A class action lawsuit against West Publishing Corp, which, like the Reuters news agency, is part of Thomson Reuters, alleged that the practice of acquiring and selling the data violated the Driver's Privacy Protection Act.

The plaintiffs, holders of state identity cards, said that West had obtained such information directly from 29 states and the District of Columbia and, in some instances, from other entities that already had acquired it.

A federal judge in Missouri said the case could go ahead but was reversed by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an April ruling. Monday's Supreme Court ruling effectively allows the appeals court ruling to stand.

Under federal law, certain types of information are permitted to be disclosed by state agencies and, in some cases, re-sold by third parties like West.

West said it obtained the records purely for the uses permitted under the law. The information can, for example, be provided to insurance companies pursuing claims or to an employer seeking to verify if a worker has a valid commercial driver's license.

In seeking the high court's attention, the plaintiffs cited a Supreme Court ruling from June that addressed the same federal law.

In that case, the Supreme Court held on a 5-4 vote that lawyers cannot gather personal information about drivers from state databases when seeking plaintiffs for potential lawsuits. The case hinged on language in the law that allows access to the data for lawyers pursuing an "investigation in anticipation of litigation."

West's lawyers played down the significance of that ruling in court papers, saying it dealt with a different section of the law.

Thomson Reuters spokesman John Shaughnessy said in a statement that the company was pleased with the high court's decision. "We believe the use of driver's license and motor vehicle information within accepted guidelines can be of great value in supporting the work of law enforcement, investigative, legal and government professionals," he said.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Johnson v. West Publishing Corp, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-218.

(Editing by Howard Goller)

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Comments (1)
Oh, yes, we’ve seen this before.

What the ‘government’ is prohibited from doing; ‘corporations’ can effect.

Enter the term “vicarious:” – meaning “…the same as.”

As criminal and civil “law” operate, there is the legally enforceable concept of “vicarious liability;” a contract killing, for example.

In the civil courts, a good example would be a mall (corporation) renting retail space to a (cleverly disguised) music or software “pirate.” While the pertinent lease may clearly prohibit illegal commerce and contain a hold-harmless clause (also specifying illegal activity as legal cause for immediate termination of the lease); the mall owners can’t (passively) escape the “pirate” liability – claiming both ignorance and lease protection language. Under the concept of “… reasonable care” and “due diligence;” the mall owner can be construed as an “accomplice.”

As another example, a home owner’s acclaimed “ignorance” of their renters’ operation of a “drug house.” The “vicarious liability” concept can cost the property owner(s) – to the extreme of having their home “seized.”

However, if the “primary” entity (responsibly) discovers the reality and takes appropriate action; the “vicarious liability” doesn’t (shouldn’t) apply.

In the converse –

Now, enter the (political) term – “vicarious innocence.” Add the elementary notion that “… power is; what power does (with total impunity).”

In the case of “vicarious innocence,” the only requirement is to have effective political “plausible assertion/denial” available – and a “firewall.”

For example, in the case of “Operation Fast and Furious;” the ‘government’ (ATF) provided a large cache weapons to the Mexican drug cartel(s). The (plausible assertion) was the ATF stated “intent” of supposedly tracking weapons bought in the U.S. – to be supplied to the Mexican drug cartel(s). In “plausible denial;” alas, human errors resulted in the (convenient) actual delivery of those same weapons (lots of them). Beyond the ATF being (theoretically) “busted,” a Border Patrol Agent, Brian Terry, was killed with one of the ATF-furnished weapons. Clever verbiage wasn’t enough – thos “… in power” needed an extra layer of protection – a “firewall.” Thus:

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, refuses to investigate or prosecute the “Operation Fast and Furious” criminality – also refusing to comply with Congressional demands for the pertinent information. Then, while the Attorney General is held in contempt of Congress, his (then) Deputy refused to investigate or charge his boss. Later, the new Deputy – named as a participant in “Operation Fast and Furious” – is confirmed by Congress. Oh yes, Obama asserted “executive privilege” over the pertinent information.

What a “firewall!” (Working in all of the “Obama Scandals.”)

So, in this instance, ‘corporations’ can do what the U.S. government (supposedly) cannot; that is, furnish personal information at a profit.

The “rub” being that corporate profiteering on private information is a booming business: now including “… tell, or go to hell …” information; brought to the profiteers by – you guessed it – “Obamacare!”

Did anyone notice that front-loaded disclaimer – the one which says that no “Obamacare” subscriber has any expectation of privacy?

Privacy is OUT; information leverage is IN.

Oct 22, 2013 10:56pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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