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Senator Wyden Introduces Bill To Help Consumers Regain Online Privacy And Control Over Sensitive Data

Late last week, Senator Ron Wyden (Dem - Oregon) introduced a "discussion draft" of legislation to help consumers recover online privacy and control over their sensitive personal data. Senator Wyden said:

"Today’s economy is a giant vacuum for your personal information – Everything you read, everywhere you go, everything you buy and everyone you talk to is sucked up in a corporation’s database. But individual Americans know far too little about how their data is collected, how it’s used and how it’s shared... It’s time for some sunshine on this shadowy network of information sharing. My bill creates radical transparency for consumers, gives them new tools to control their information and backs it up with tough rules with real teeth to punish companies that abuse Americans’ most private information.”

The press release by Senator Wyden's office explained the need for new legislation:

"The government has failed to respond to these new threats: a) Information about consumers’ activities, including their location information and the websites they visit is tracked, sold and monetized without their knowledge by many entities; b) Corporations’ lax cybersecurity and poor oversight of commercial data-sharing partnerships has resulted in major data breaches and the misuse of Americans’ personal data; c) Consumers have no effective way to control companies’ use and sharing of their data."

Consumers in the United States lost both control and privacy protections when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by President Trump appointee Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, repealed last year both broadband privacy and net neutrality protections for consumers. A December 2017 study of 1,077 voters found that most want net neutrality protections. President Trump signed the privacy-rollback legislation in April 2017. A prior blog post listed many historical abuses of consumers by some internet service providers (ISPs).

With the repealed broadband privacy, ISPs are free to collect and archive as much data about consumers as desired without having to notify and get consumers' approval of the collection nor of who they share archived data with. That's 100 percent freedom for ISPs and zero freedom for consumers.

By repealing online privacy and net neutrality protections for consumers, the FCC essentially punted responsibility to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). According to Senator Wyden's press release:

"The FTC, the nation’s main privacy and data security regulator, currently lacks the authority and resources to address and prevent threats to consumers’ privacy: 1) The FTC cannot fine first-time corporate offenders. Fines for subsequent violations of the law are tiny, and not a credible deterrent; 2) The FTC does not have the power to punish companies unless they lie to consumers about how much they protect their privacy or the companies’ harmful behavior costs consumers money; 3) The FTC does not have the power to set minimum cybersecurity standards for products that process consumer data, nor does any federal regulator; and 4) The FTC does not have enough staff, especially skilled technology experts. Currently about 50 people at the FTC police the entire technology sector and credit agencies."

This means consumers have no protections nor legal options unless the company, or website, violates its published terms-of-conditions and privacy policies. To solves the above gaps, Senator Wyden's new legislation, titled the Consumer Data Privacy Act (CDPA), contains several new and stronger protections. It:

"... allows consumers to control the sale and sharing of their data, gives the FTC the authority to be an effective cop on the beat, and will spur a new market for privacy-protecting services. The bill empowers the FTC to: i) Establish minimum privacy and cybersecurity standards; ii) Issue steep fines (up to 4% of annual revenue), on the first offense for companies and 10-20 year criminal penalties for senior executives; iii) Create a national Do Not Track system that lets consumers stop third-party companies from tracking them on the web by sharing data, selling data, or targeting advertisements based on their personal information. It permits companies to charge consumers who want to use their products and services, but don’t want their information monetized; iv) Give consumers a way to review what personal information a company has about them, learn with whom it has been shared or sold, and to challenge inaccuracies in it; v) Hire 175 more staff to police the largely unregulated market for private data; and vi) Require companies to assess the algorithms that process consumer data to examine their impact on accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy, and security."

Permitting companies to charge consumers who opt out of data collection and sharing is a good thing. Why? Monthly payments by consumers are leverage -- a strong incentive for companies to provide better cybersecurity.

Business as usual -- cybersecurity methods by corporate executives and government enforcement -- isn't enough. The tsunami of data breaches is an indication. During October alone:

A few notable breach events from earlier this year:

The status quo, or business as usual, is unacceptable. Executives' behavior won't change without stronger consequences like jail time, since companies perform cost-benefit analyses regarding how much to spend on cybersecurity versus the probability of breaches and fines. Opt-outs of data collection and sharing by consumers, steeper fines, and criminal penalties could change those cost-benefit calculations.

Four former chief technologists at the FCC support Senator Wyden's legislation. Gabriel Weinberg, the Chief Executive Officer of DuckDuckGo also supports it:

"Senator Wyden’s proposed consumer privacy bill creates needed privacy protections for consumers, mandating easy opt-outs from hidden tracking. By forcing companies that sell and monetize user data to be more transparent about their data practices, the bill will also empower consumers to make better-informed privacy decisions online, enabling companies like ours to compete on a more level playing field."

Regular readers of this blog know that the DuckDuckGo search engine (unlike Google, Bing and Yahoo search engines) doesn't track users, doesn't collect nor archive data about users and their devices, and doesn't collect nor store users' search criteria. So, DuckDuckGo users can search knowing their data isn't being sold to advertisers, data brokers, and others.

Lastly, Wyden's proposed legislation includes several key definitions (emphasis added):

"... The term "automated decision system" means a computational process, including one derived from machine learning, statistics, or other data processing or artificial intelligence techniques, that makes a decision or facilitates human decision making, that impacts consumers... The term "automated decision system impact assessment" means a study evaluating an automated decision system and the automated decision system’s development process, including the design and training data of the automated decision 14 system, for impacts on accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy, and security that includes... The term "data protection impact assessment" means a study evaluating the extent to which an information system protects the privacy and security of personal information the system processes... "

The draft legislation requires companies to perform both automated data impact assessments and data protection impact assessments; and requires the FTC to set the frequency and conditions for both. A copy of the CDPA draft is also available here (Adobe PDF; 67.7 k bytes).

This is a good start. It is important... critical... to hold accountable both corporate executives and the automated decision systems their approve and deploy. Based upon history, outsourcing has been one corporate tactic to manage liability by shifting it to providers. Good to close any loopholes now where executives could abuse artificial intelligence and related technologies to avoid responsibility.

What are your thoughts, opinions of the proposed legislation?

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