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When Privacy and the Well-Being of Children Are Apparently At Odds

BY Nick Judd | Monday, November 15 2010

A story that appeared on the cover of a recent edition of the New York Times asserted that 20th-century notions of how the federal government should handle citizens' private tax information are keeping valuable intelligence out of the hands of investigators looking for missing children:

The government, which by its own admission has data that could be helpful in tracking down the thousands of missing children in the United States, says that taxpayer privacy laws severely restrict the release of information from tax returns. “We will do whatever we can within the confines of the law to make it easier for law enforcement to find abducted children,” said Michelle Eldridge, an I.R.S. spokeswoman.

The privacy laws, enacted a generation ago to prevent Watergate-era abuses of confidential taxpayer information, have specific exceptions allowing the I.R.S. to turn over information in child support cases and to help federal agencies determine whether an applicant qualifies for income-based federal benefits.

But because of guidelines in the handling of criminal cases, there are several obstacles for parents and investigators pursuing a child abductor — even when the taxpayer in question is a fugitive and the subject of a felony warrant.

This is a conversation about how accessible federal government data is, how accessible it should be, and how data can or can't be shared between government agencies at the federal, state and local levels — and, notably, it was the lead story in a print edition of The New York Times.

The way this could work, according to a report cited in the article, is relatively straightforward. There is a national database containing information on missing children, often including Social Security numbers. It's possible, according to the Treasury Department report, to query IRS databases for the addresses of people filing tax returns using the Social Security number of an alleged abductor, or claiming, as a dependent, a child who has reportedly been abducted.

The Treasury Department actually ran such a query as part of the 2007 report cited in the Times article, and found hundreds of matches. But, notes Times author David Kocieniewski, a federal judge did not authorize the IRS to turn the addresses over to investigators. A federal judge can grant approval for federal investigators to access this information, but, the article notes, most cases of this nature are handled at the state or local level. It's not clear if this means local or state investigators can't petition for access to federally held taxpayer data.

Also curious is the way the author frames the privacy laws preventing the IRS from sharing personal taxpayer information without the intervention of the federal judiciary. Is it every such restriction that is a "Watergate-era" impediment to law enforcement, "enacted a generation ago," or just the ones that prevent investigators from locating missing children? And how do you fix that without running into the same legal arguments that support warrants for searches of emails or any of the other pieces of the emerging framework for what entitlement to privacy there is in 21st-century America?