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Not So Private Privacy

Cnet reports on a new bill being proposed by two men who ran for president and lost – John Kerry and John McCain. In essence, the bill is designed to protect Americans from loss of private information when using the internet, as well as when speaking on the phone, traveling, etc. The Commercial Privacy Rights Act of 2011, is being touted by McCain and Kerry as “establish(ing) a framework to protect the personal information of all Americans.”

Generally speaking, the bill has received praise from people concerned with internet privacy. Eweek.com writes:

The “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” proposed by U.S. Senators John Kerry and John McCain is a sensible way to give Web users more control over how their personal information is used without imposing an impractical technical standard.

The Washington Post chimes in with:

The bill got a generally good reception from industry. “We appreciate that this legislation . . . allows for flexibility to adapt to changes in technology,” said a joint statement by Intel, Cisco, eBay and Hewlett-Packard. “The bill also strikes the appropriate balance by providing businesses with the opportunity to enter into a robust self-regulatory program.”

There is one major problem, however:

….one feature of the bill sponsored by senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that has gone relatively unnoticed: it doesn’t apply to data mining, surveillance, or any other forms of activities that governments use to collect and collate Americans’ personal information.

In other words, the government is cracking down on companies that are keeping data on individuals, but are exempting themselves from the very same restrictions.

In fact,

The Obama Justice Department has argued that warrantless tracking is permitted because Americans enjoy no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in their–or at least their cell phones’–whereabouts. Justice Department lawyers have argued in court documents that “a customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records” that show where a mobile device placed and received calls.

Under the bill,

companies would be required to make consumer information secure, and the rules would be enforced by the FTC and state attorneys general. When there is a violation of the rules, the FTC could impose fines of as much as $3 million. Private lawsuits, including class-action suits, against companies would be prohibited.

If a company is required to keep information on individuals secure, why shouldn’t the government have the same requirement? Just yesterday the state of Texas announced that it had made the private information of millions of its citizens available online. In 2006, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs either lost or had stolen a laptop with 26.5 million veteran and active military personnel identities.

It is true that companies and retailers collect information in order to identify target markets. The state of California Supreme Court recently decided that asking for a customer’s zip code when a completing a transaction was against privacy laws. In that case, the Court not only said that asking for such information was a breech Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971, but that such information was the property of the person, and the store had no right to either ask for it, or store it (even without personnel identifiers) or use it to protect customers against fraud. The information is solely the property of the individual.

It therefore makes one wonder what the Census Bureau is doing asking Tulsa County (OK) Assessor Ken Yazel to provide information on land parcels and their value, as well as the names of the owners of the property.

The letter, dated March 7, 2011, states that the Census Bureau is conducting a study to determine “the feasibility of collecting and producing national statistics on taxable property values.”

It goes on to request eight pieces of information, including the gross assessed value, owner’s name and annual tax bill for all parcels on Tulsa County’s 2009 assessment roles.

The county was selected for the voluntary study as a sample unit for similar-size entities to give the Census Bureau a reliable picture of the entire country, the letter states.

State property taxes and land values are state issues. There is no rhyme, reason or jurisdiction for the United States Census Bureau to be asking for information on private citizens and their land holdings within a state.

Mr. Yazel took some heat for saying he wouldn’t comply with the request, but one has to wonder how many other tax assessors did not question anything and simply ponied up the information – information the Census Bureau had no legal right to ask for, much less receive?

The The Commercial Privacy Rights Act of 2011 is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. Government exists to protect the rights and property of its citizens. Personnel information is the property of the individual. When the government fails to include itself in the restrictions and consequences of violating property rights, it does not serve as a protector of rights and property, but as an oppressor.

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One Response to “Not So Private Privacy”

  1. JayAitch says:

    This doesn’t pass the sniff test.

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