Consumer Privacy: Better Disclosures Needed on Information Sharing by Banks and Credit Unions

What GAO Found

Banks and credit unions collect, use, and share consumers’ personal information—such as income level and credit card transactions—to conduct everyday business and market products and services. They share this information with a variety of third parties, such as service providers and retailers.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) requires financial institutions to provide consumers with a privacy notice describing their information-sharing practices. Many banks and credit unions elect to use a model form—issued by regulators in 2009—which provides a safe harbor for complying with the law (see figure). GAO found the form gives a limited view of what information is collected and with whom it is shared. Consumer and privacy groups GAO interviewed cited similar limitations. The model form was issued over 10 years ago. The proliferation of data-sharing since then suggests a reassessment of the form is warranted. Federal guidance states that notices about information collection and usage are central to providing privacy protections and transparency. Since Congress transferred authority to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for implementing GLBA privacy provisions, the agency has not reassessed if the form meets consumer expectations for disclosures of information-sharing. CFPB officials said they had not considered a reevaluation because they had not heard concerns from industry or consumer groups about privacy notices. Improvements to the model form could help ensure that consumers are better informed about all the ways banks and credit unions collect and share personal information.

Excerpts of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act Model Privacy Form Showing Reasons Institutions Share Personal Information

Federal regulators examine institutions for compliance with GLBA privacy requirements, but did not do so routinely in 2014–2018 because they found most institutions did not have an elevated privacy risk. Before examinations, regulators assess noncompliance risks in areas such as relationships with third parties and sharing practices to help determine if compliance with privacy requirements needs to be examined. The violations of privacy provisions that the examinations identified were mostly minor, such as technical errors, and regulators reported relatively few consumer complaints.

Why GAO Did This Study

Banks and credit unions maintain a large amount of personal information about consumers. Federal law requires that they have processes to protect this information, including data shared with certain third parties. GAO was asked to review how banks and credit unions collect, use, and share such information and federal oversight of these activities. This report examines, among other things, (1) what personal information banks and credit unions collect, and how they use and share the information; (2) the extent to which they make consumers aware of the personal information they collect and share; and (3) how regulatory agencies oversee such collection, use, and sharing.

GAO reviewed privacy notices from a nongeneralizable sample of 60 banks and credit unions with a mix of institutions with asset sizes above and below $10 billion. GAO also reviewed federal privacy laws and regulations, regulators’ examinations in 2014–2018 (the last 5 years available), procedures for assessing compliance with federal privacy requirements, and data on violations. GAO interviewed officials from banks, industry and consumer groups, academia, and federal regulators.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that CFPB update the model privacy form and consider including more information about third-party sharing. CFPB did not agree or disagree with the recommendation but said they would consider it, noting that it would require a joint rulemaking with other agencies.

For more information, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or CackleyA@gao.gov or Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or MarinosN@gao.gov.

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  • Joint Statement of the U.S.-India Counternarcotics Working Group
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Lifting Self-Imposed Restrictions on the U.S.-Taiwan Relationship
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Retirement Security: Older Women Report Facing a Financially Uncertain Future
    In U.S GAO News
    In all 14 focus groups GAO held with older women, women described some level of anxiety about financial security in retirement. Many expressed concerns about the future of Social Security and Medicare benefits, and the costs of health care and housing. Women in the groups also cited a range of experiences that hindered their retirement security, such as divorce or leaving the workforce before they planned to (see fig.). Women in all 14 focus groups said their lack of personal finance education negatively affected their ability to plan for retirement. Many shared ideas about personal finance education including the view that it should be incorporated into school curriculum starting in kindergarten and continuing through college, and should be available through all phases of life. Women Age 70 and Over by Marital Status Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding. Individual women's financial security is also linked to their household where resources may be shared among household members. According to the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, among households with older women, about 23 percent of those with white respondents and 40 percent of those with African American respondents fell short of a measure of retirement confidence, indicating their income was not sufficient to maintain their standard of living. The likelihood of a household reporting high retirement confidence rose in certain cases. For example among households of similar wealth, those with greater liquidity in their portfolio and those with defined benefit plan income were more likely to report high retirement confidence. Older adults represent a growing portion of the U.S. population and older women have a longer life expectancy, on average, than older men. Prior GAO work has found that challenges women face during their working years can affect their lifetime earnings and retirement income. For example, we found women were overrepresented in low wage professions, paid less money than their male counterparts during their careers, and were more likely to leave the workforce to care for family members. Taken together, these trends may have significant effects on women's financial security in retirement. GAO was asked to report on the financial security of older women. This report examines (1) women retirees' perspectives on their financial security, and (2) what is known about the financial security of older women in retirement. GAO held 14 non-generalizable focus groups with older women in both urban and rural areas in each of the four census regions. GAO also analyzed data from three nationally representative surveys—the 2019 Current Population Survey, the Health and Retirement Study (2002-2014 longitudinal data), and the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances. For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.
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  • Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Billingslea to Address the Conference on Disarmament 
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Information on the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has taken steps to implement its Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP)—a dual-purpose program for navigation improvements and ecosystem restoration along the Upper Mississippi River system. Specifically, in 2004 the Corps identified 24 navigation improvement projects and 1,010 ecosystem restoration projects and proposed a plan for implementing them. For example, the Corps plans to construct or extend 12 locks to facilitate commercial barge traffic along the river system (see fig.), which the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin have generally relied on as their principal conduit for export-bound agricultural products. The Corps also plans to restore floodplains along the river system and backwaters that provide habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife. While the total estimated program cost is $7.9 billion, as of October 2020, the Corps has initiated technical studies and designs for 47 NESP projects at a cost of approximately $65 million. Barge Tow at Lock and Dam 15 in Rock Island, Illinois However, the Corps has identified several challenges facing the program, and it has taken steps to mitigate them. Specifically, the Corps was unable to implement NESP projects for 7 years because the program did not receive funding in fiscal years 2011 through 2017, in part because the Corps identified other projects as higher priorities. To mitigate this challenge, the Corps reprogrammed funding to help ensure projects could be executed when funds became available. Another challenge is that the Corps has not yet established partnership agreements that are needed for some NESP ecosystem projects. Corps officials said that about 15 to 20 percent of the ecosystem projects will require partnership agreements in which partners commit to share 35 percent of the project costs, typically through the purchase of land for the project. The officials said that partners may be reluctant to make financial commitments to projects while NESP funding is uncertain. Furthermore, the partnership agreements can take up to 18 months to put in place. To help expedite program implementation, Corps officials said they have pursued projects in fiscal year 2020 that can begin without a commitment from project partners. The Upper Mississippi River system provides approximately $1 billion in annual benefits to the nation’s economy through boating, fishing, and other uses, according to a Corps report. It also supports more than 2.5 million acres of aquatic, wetland, forest, grassland, and agricultural habitats. In 1986, Congress declared its intent to recognize the system as a nationally significant commercial navigation system and a nationally significant ecosystem. However, the Upper Mississippi River’s navigation system has faced significant delays in commercial boating and barge traffic, and human activity has caused a decline in environmental quality, according to a 2004 Corps report. The Corps initiated studies in 1989 and 1990 to identify ways to improve the river system. The Corps issued a feasibility report in 2004 that identified improvement projects, and in 2007 Congress formally authorized NESP and the projects identified in the report. GAO was asked to review NESP. This report describes (1) the steps the Corps has taken to implement NESP and (2) the challenges the Corps has identified to fully implementing the program and steps the Corps is taking to address these challenges. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed Corps reports, documents, and data from fiscal year 2005—the year in which the Corps began implementing NESP projects—through fiscal year 2020. GAO also interviewed Corps officials. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or gaffiganm@gao.gov.
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