WASHINGTON -- It always starts with good intentions: Hey, let's create a master file to catch the bad guys, like deadbeat dads, child molesters, potential assassins.
But it ends up with somebody -- the government, a credit bureau, your boss, a private detective -- knowing more about you than you might like.
It's happening again this week in Congress.
A little-noticed section of the 400-page welfare bill, now before the House of Representatives, would create a nationwide system of electronic directories containing the names of everybody who is hired for a new job. Ultimately, that means almost all Americans.
The purpose is to track down parents -- mostly absent fathers -- who fail to obey court orders to support their children.
Because the goal is worthy, these huge new databanks have been endorsed by President Clinton as well as members of Congress from both parties.
But critics warn that the computer listings could be another step toward a Big-Brother, We-Know-Where-You-Are society that Americans have traditionally resisted.
``We always try to solve social problems by creating data bases on people,'' said Janlori Goldman, a privacy expert at Washington's Electronic Frontier Foundation, which studies the effect of computers on society.
``Once created, they can be used -- and have been used -- for nefarious purposes by the government or the private sector,'' she said. ``They're impossible to control.''
Along with child support, the government is considering new data bases covering illegal aliens, medical records and even cars on the highway.
Unlike many other nations, the United States has refused to establish a central registry of its people. The Social Security system comes closest, being used for tax as well as pension purposes. But its nine-digit numbers are notoriously inaccurate and subject to fraud and abuse.
Nonetheless, under the welfare bill, each state would set up a computerized ``State Directory of New Hires,'' indexed by Social Security numbers. Employers would have to report the name, address and Social Security number of each new employee to the state, and a national directory would serve as a master index to the entire system.
The names and numbers would be matched by computer against a separate list of delinquent parents. If a match were found, the employer would be required to start automatically withholding child support from the deadbeat's paycheck.
Nineteen states already have, or are starting to set up, such directories.
Officials say the system could increase child support payments by $24 billion -- and save taxpayers $4 billion in welfare costs -- over 10 years.
The list of new hires would also be cross-checked with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, in case there is a violation of federal tax or immigration laws.
The plan would make the Social Security number even more of a national identifier. The number would have to be recorded on all commercial driver's licenses, marriage and occupational licenses, as well as divorce or paternity decrees and support orders.
This directory of new hires would be similar to one proposed last year by the National Commission on Immigration Reform to catch illegal aliens.
That commission, headed by former Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, wants the government to set up a computer registry of all workers so that employers can check the immigration status of job applicants.
Jordan's proposal was highly controversial and has not been carried out.
``It would require every employer to obtain federal government approval before job applicants could be hired,'' the president of the American Bar Association, George E. Bushnell Jr., said at the time. ``The registry would involve the development of national data files on every citizen and legal resident.''
Even some conservative Republicans, like Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who favor the child support data base, thought Jordan's plan went too far. Clinton supports the idea, however, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service is preparing a five-state test.
In addition, the president's abortive 1994 health-care reform bill would have set up a centralized computer registry for all health records. Initially, the data base would contain only financial information, but eventually would be expanded to include each patient's medical records.
And the Transportation Department is experimenting with a system to identify vehicles on the highway electronically, despite concerns about motorists' privacy.
``Soon we're going to have technology to keep track of everybody all the time,'' said Robert Belair, a Washington lawyer specializing in privacy matters. ``Of course we want to catch those bad guys, but do we want to transform our democracy into a surveillance society, where we are watched all the time for a variety of laudable purposes?
``In the long run, we will have changed the way citizens relate to government. We'll never quite be the same again.''
Despite these concerns, few objections have been raised to the employee data base in the welfare bill.
That's partly because all the attention has been focused on the high-decibel fights over abortion, teen-age pregnancy and benefit cuts. Furthermore, Belair pointed out, no politician wants to be on the wrong side of a popular issue like child support.
Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., chairman of the subcommittee that handled the child support portion of the welfare bill, is uneasy about the new hire registry.
``He does have concerns about Big Brother government,'' said Scott Brenner, Shaw's spokesman. ``He's hesitant, about how much privacy do we maintain.
``It's a fine line we have to draw.''
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