When it comes to pending legislation, Congress loves data


Hundreds of bills currently pending in Congress highlight the never-ending push-pull between the public’s right to know and assorted privacy and security concerns. With 535 legislators constantly introducing bills, there’s no simple way to keep track of every one that might affect the collection or dissemination of data.

By searching on  GovTrack.us, however, I found that in the 115h Congress alone, 13 bills contain the term “public records,” 93 contain the word “database” and 403 contain the word “data, as of mid-April 2017.

Sifting through these proposed laws, it’s clear that data collection is a factor in all types of government functions, from modernizing the copyright process to closing underutilized military bases to monitoring the assets of Iranian leaders.

Following is a breakdown of how and where data comes up in legislation in the 115th Congress, including a partial list of bills Sunlight supports.

Some bills, like the Federal Records Modernization Act of 2017, indicate  in the title that they modify the government’s information-gathering powers.

In other cases, data collection or disclosure is obscured by the title of the bill. For example, The Wingman Act would let congressional staffers obtain health records of consenting veterans without having to go through the VA.

Some bills are relatively non-controversial.

  • The Cold Case Record Collections Act of 2017 proposes that “All government records related to civil rights cold cases shall be preserved for historical and governmental purposes.” The bill acknowledges that the disclosure of such records has historically been slow and inadequate under the Freedom of Information Act – and that executive orders claiming to protect national security information have also blocked transparency.
  • The Improving Support for Missing and Exploited Children Act of 2017 calls for the coordination of state-level missing-children clearinghouses and to “make available to the general public, as appropriate,” data on missing children and attempted abductions.

Other bills have other potential landmines.

  • The Tax Accountability Act of 2017 would deny federal employment, grants and contracts to anyone with “seriously delinquent tax debt.” The bill would authorize the Secretary of the Treasury to disclose to other agency heads whether certain people have such debt.
  • The stated goal of Pharmaceutical Information Exchange Act (H.R. 2026) is “to improve patient access to emerging medication therapies by clarifying the scope of permitted health care economic and scientific information communications between biopharmaceutical manufacturers and population health decision makers.”  But its title alone — the Pharmaceutical Information Exchange Act — raises some red flag about what health data might be shared with companies and who could stand to profit.
  • The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017, which seeks to expand nuclear-energy research among civilians, proposes “a database to store and share data and knowledge relevant to nuclear science and engineering between Federal agencies and the private sector.” Theoretically, getting more people learning about nuclear capabilities could result in better practices; then again, what if Kim Jong Un downloads a copy?

A number of bills in the pipeline are focused on the threat of terrorism.

  • The Frank Lautenberg Memorial Secure Chemical Facilities Act is an effort to gather data on small chemical facilities like fertilizer or pesticide manufacturers. It provides for the development of security assessments, as well as the establishment of whistleblower hotlines to report non-secure facilities.  Should this information be available to neighbors understandably concerned about potential threats? Or stay secret, lest the proverbial bad guys exploit it? The bill foresees such conflicts, as it provides for the vague power to “prescribe such regulations, and may issue such orders, as necessary to prohibit the unauthorized disclosure” of related information.
  • H.R. 876, the Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act of 2017, seeks to mitigate insider threats to airport security by insuring that certain employee entry and exit points in airports include secure doors that require PIN numbers or biometric technology, as well as surveillance video. The bill covers employees including airport concessionaires and requires collecting their social security numbers. It calls for creation of a “national database of Administration employees who have had either their airport or aircraft operator-issued badge revoked for failure to comply with aviation security requirements.” It also calls for a process for removing anyone falsely added to the database.

Another set of bills would set up new databases, some of which are problematic because of the ways weaponizing selective disclosure could undermine public trust in government.

  • The Mobile Now Act would require the Office of Science and Technology Policy to “establish and operate a single database of any covered property that is owned, leased, or otherwise managed by an Executive agency” and make the database available to communications companies, but also “establish a process for withholding data from the database for national security, public safety, or other national strategic concerns.”
  • The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 commands the Director of National Intelligence to study the feasibility of creating a database of surveillance imagery.
  • The Sportsmen’s Act, which seeks to open federal land to hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting, would require creation of a searchable database of court adversaries and a “priority list” of lands currently inaccessible to the public.
  • The Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act, a.k.a H.R. 1033, calls for the creation of “an online searchable database containing information about cases in which fees and expenses were awarded by courts or federal agencies to individuals or entities under the Equal Access to Justice Act.”
  • The Corporate Crime Database Act would have the Attorney General acquire data regarding civil, and criminal judicial proceedings initiated by the federal government against corporations.

Other proposed laws focus on social media.

The “Social Media Screening for Terrorists Act of 2017” requires the Department of Homeland Security “to search all public records, including Internet sites and social media profiles, to determine if an alien applying for admission to the United States is inadmissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act.” It’s legally debatable whether social media counts as “public record,” if it’s not produced by a government agency.

While many bills seek to open up the government’s books or mandate public access to certain categories of records – The Mar-A-Lago Act  would require public disclosure of visitor logs to the White House and President Trump’s private Florida estate – others would close off the flow of information.

For instance, H.J.Res. 38 eliminated the Stream Protection Rule, which required mining companies to collect and monitor environmental data on mining sites and groundwater.

Others bills remain up for debate, including:

Other bills focus on fundamentally reforming how the government collects, organizes and discloses data to the public.

  • Senator John Tester of Montana’s Public Online Information Act of 2017, asserts that the federal government should make its “public information available on the Internet,” and do so “in ways that take advantage of modern technology, that anticipate the public’s needs, and that provide access to the greatest number of people. The Government should strive to make its information available on the Internet in real-time and in machine processable formats.”  Sunlight has been a long-time support of the POIA.
  • The Preserving Government Data Act (H.R. 2026) would require federal agencies to preserve public access to data sets and prevent the removal of those data sets from the Internet without sufficient public notice. You can read the full text of the The Preserving Data in Government Act on our blog. Sunlight supports it!
  • The OPEN Government Data Act would codify an expectation into law that the Sunlight Foundation has been advocating for since we were founded a decade ago: Public data created with taxpayer dollars should be available to the public in open, machine-readable forms when doing so does not damage privacy or national security. We helped draft it, we support it in 2017., and hope you will too!