Widening the Privacy Net

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Privacy is an inalienable right according to the California constitution. Voters added privacy rights to the Constitution in 1972 and while the issue is front-and-center again, the motivation behind the current push for more privacy protection has changed since the 70s. Now, businesses’ ability to capture data about individuals is the target. In 1972 the purpose was government.

The main supporters of the privacy constitutional amendment, Assemblyman Ken Cory, later the state controller, and Senator George Mascone, later the mayor of San Francisco who was assassinated, argued in the ballot booklet in support of Proposition 11, “The proliferation of government snooping and data collecting is threatening to destroy our traditional freedoms. Government agencies seem to be competing to compile the most extensive sets of dossiers of American citizens.”

While government “snooping” led the argument, Cory and Moscone  also mentioned business records. They made an argument that sounds familiar in the current privacy debate: “Fundamental to our privacy is the ability to control circulation of personal information.”

For business, the ability to monetize information it gathers from users is valuable, but it has opened the door for abuse. The legislative response to put up more shields for consumers comes at a quickened pace. Even though the legislature last year passed the Consumer Privacy Act, which was signed into law, a new package of privacy bills have been introduced this year.

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, one of the leaders on privacy issues, wrote an echo to that 1972 ballot argument in the San Francisco Chronicle, “We need to stop looking at consumers’ data as a commodity and start seeing it as private information that belongs to individuals.”

Cunningham’s bill would prevent companies from storing recordings from home smart speakers and using the data. Other bills in a privacy package will allow individuals to tell companies to delete data they collect, require disclosure of data breaches within 72 hours of discovery, and require social media companies to seek parents’ permission to allow those under 16 to use their platforms.

Business fears that more legislation on privacy issues could open the door for class action lawsuits, which have been widely predicted by members of the legal community.

However, the Cunningham bill will probably gain momentum after the recent report from the Washington Post about companies using recordings from the smart speakers to “train” their software, without the public’s knowledge.

Just as voters supported the addition of privacy to the state constitution nearly five decades ago, I suspect the public will get behind widening the privacy net now.

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