In February of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to form a new sub-committee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. They chose my favorite Senator, Al Franken to chair the new group. After I heard about this new committee’s formation back in February (feb 14), they kinda went radio silent for a few months, presumably putting their noses to the grindstone to come up with something brilliant. So what has Al Franken done for us lately?
On June 17th, Senator Franken introduced his Location Privacy Protection Act, which is probably just a gut reaction to Apple and Google Android’s ability to track where you’ve been, either inadvertently or overtly through compromised apps. This is great for privacy (if it ever gets passed), but most likely the two companies (Apple and Google) will clear up their vunlerabilities long before any legislation gets passed.
The real question is, Why? The supreme court this year will consider whether warrantless GPS tracking by the FBI is okay. The Justice department is arguing that “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another,”. If law enforcement is able to monitor citizens in this way, then why take the same information away from individuals who might want to see where their kids or spouse have been? Are we really concerned that hackers will want to know where we’ve been? Or are we worried that stalkers could use the info? That advertisers will be able to better market products to us based on our travel habits? Why should the government get a free pass when Facebook is getting beat up over releasing impersonal statistical data to advertisers?
So what about current laws on the books that protect Privacy, like HIPAA? This begs the question of whether health records are any more or less important than other types of personal information, like GPS tracking. The majority of crime that HIPAA attempts to prevent isn’t someone shouting from a rooftop that someone has an embarrassing rash or STD. HIPAA attempts to prevent financial crimes, which is exactly what SAFE Data and the Privacy Bill of Rights are about…They’re not about Privacy at all.
Now, this brings us back to what Al Franken has done for us lately. Is the Privacy sub-committee just an Orwellian attempt at naming a group that is out to protect the opposite of Privacy? After all, why should I care if my identity is stolen if the FTC limits my direct damages to $50? From studies, we know that indirect damages are higher, maybe $250. But the real damages are to companies, which pass along the costs to consumers.
Do we even care about Privacy anymore? If the answer is, “Only when it hurts us not to” then maybe we should be revising our notions of Privacy just as quickly as the technology evolves our ability to subvert it.