Do not track, data brokers, and what we would like to see in privacy: our letter to Congress

The FTC issued its final privacy recommenations on February 26, 2012.

Privacy has been all over the news recently, and not just because of the usual stories about Google and Facebook.  Now the government has gotten involved.

From the White House’s announcement of a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in February to the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy recommendations a few days ago, it all points to one thing:  the government is taking privacy, particularly online privacy, seriously.

Privacy is a hot topic at the Capital.

It’s nice to see.  We’ve always thought privacy rights were important–we founded Abine on that premise and belief–so when the White House comes out and says that “strengthening consumer data privacy protections in the United States is an important Administration priority,” we’re pretty thrilled.

What should happen to your online privacy?  The government wants public input.

The White House’s “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World” provided a framework for better privacy protections.

Now that the government considers privacy a priority, they’ve asked for the public’s help in figuring out what steps they should take to actually protect it.  Laws, codes of conduct, industry self-regulation…it’s all on the table.  We weighed in with a public comment on what we’d like to see happen for privacy with extra detail in the areas we know best:  online tracking and data brokers (AKA people search databases).

You can read our full comment here, but we’ll give you the summary:

  • Most people don’t realize that we’re leaving a digital data trail in our wake, a path that builds up alarmingly detailed profiles aboutall of us.  This widespread and largely unregulated collection, sharing, sale, and storage of massive amounts of consumer data are threats to privacy, particularly because most people are unaware of the existence—let alone the scope—of these invasive practices.
  • We strive to offer technological solutions to these problems, but we believe that technology paired with regulation offers the greatest potential to spur significant, positive changes for consumer privacy.
  • The FTC recommended that data brokers make a one-stop shop where people can (1) see what information these sites have about them, and (2) make sure it’s accurate.  They also state that you should be able to remove your information if that site is selling it for marketing purposes.  While we think this is a good step, we’d take it further and let people actually removetheir information.  We think there’s an immediate need to enable this solution for higher-risk groups, including victims of domestic violence andcyberbullying and law enforcement officials.  Lastly, it’s unclear what “marketing purposes” are, who would define this term, or who would enforce this exception.
  • We commend the W3C standards committee for pioneering a universal standard for Do Not Track, and believe the header itself shows promise.  We support the Digital Advertising Alliance’s continued work in defining and self-regulating compliance with theDo Not Track header, but believe there is still a gap between what the header does and what web users think it does.  People expect Do Not Track to stop tracking, not simply stop targeted ads.  We believe there should be better alignment between what the termmeans and what it does, as well as continued work to expand consumer privacy through the Do Not Track header.

We’re optimistic to see what happens in the future, but if you want to do something to protect your privacy right now, check out DoNotTrackPlus, a free tool to cut down on online tracking and data collection; DeleteMe, a paid service that removes your information from data broker websites; and our 5 simple tips you can start doing right now.

What do you think about the government’s pledge to protect privacy?  What concerns you, and what would you change?  This is a critical moment in history for digital privacy, so it’s more important than ever to speak up!  Please leave your thoughts below.




6 comments shared on this article:

  • Barbara Choury says:

    I do not believe the government should be involved in the process of privacy protection in the sense of keeping lists etc. Maybe congress should address the issue by requireing wording to conform to practice. There should not be an oversight process by gov. Rather, individuals and organizations should use due process of law to bring companies and individuals that vialate standards to heel.

  • Bill Busi says:

    I agree with Barbara Choury’s comments, but I also believe that the FTC and/or Congress needs to establish stronger and better defined laws to control individuals,organizations and companies that violate the laws to cease immediately or to be fined if they do not comply in a reasonable amount of time. I think they should have no more than two days to do this,since they can actually comply immediately if they choose to do so according to law.

  • Sean Parker says:

    I think that the collection of information is not a bad thing if they are then used for its intended purpose. For example, ads targeting to our interests is a great idea. Problems begin when someone selling our personal data. But I personally doubt that this problem can solve government or organizations created for this purpose. This problem was is and will be.

  • John Doe says:

    When will the government clamp down on the abhorrent practice of selling names, dates of birth and residential addresses for money without the express permission of the owner of that detail? Beyond credit cards and magazine publishers selling this detail – the US Postal service even engages in flagrant data brokering withut user permission.

    Federal agencies aren’t allowed to sell or rent personal information such as names and addresses under the federal Privacy Act, but the USPS just signed a 10-year contract with a Massachusetts company, Imagitas, giving it exclusive rights to manage its change-of-address process. Imagitas sells ads to major retailers, then mails packets stuffed with ads to millions of homes along with the change-of-address letter.

    Though Abine is doing an admirable job to combat this pervasive concern – for people who wish to remain private online – there are literally no fully comprehensive approaches for removing one’s personally identifiable details completely off the web. This area needs firm legislation now.

    It is misguided to lump do-not-track however in the same bucket as name and address detail which is much more nefarious and damaging to people’s privacy. People who consider them the same are simply barking up the wrong tree by overly dramatizing what is a common practice for online advertising that provides clear user benefits like free content and free web services.

  • Prefer not to disclose says:

    The government ABSOLUTELY needs to step in and regulate the behavior of these aggregators. If anyone has ever tried to have information removed, they know the frustration of dealing with the maze of information, the lengthy processes you have to go through just to have your information removed. And that’s for the ones that will do it and are nice to you and efficient. Then there are the arrogant ones who cite public records laws for why they are entitled to your information to use as a tool to make money for themselves. And then there are some that are extortionist, demanding money to remove your information. Funny, Iast time I checked, making money off of someone else’s property (their private personal information in this case) wasn’t legal, but for some reason, there appears to be an exemption for people’s personal information. Once upon a time, in the pre-internet age, when people had to go to the inconvenience and cost to get public information about someone, they rarely did so if it was not for legitimate reason, precisely because of the hassle and cost. The law making your personal information public was done so for transparency and good governance reasons. Now, these aggregators are using the law to make money off other unsuspecting people’s backs. This is beyond immoral in my opinion, and just as you would not take things from a store without paying for it (thus notifying the store owner of what you are doing) you should also not be able to take people’s private information and do with it as you please. These aggregators have to be stopped and consumers have to be able to take their power back and control what aspects of their personal information they want to share and with whom.



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