EDITORIAL: The consumer privacy bill of rights should be law
Apr 07, 2012 (The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As politicians hunker down for a long, bipolar year producing little, citizen-consumers get no vacation from the need to protect their privacy online.
The last two weeks have brought more examples of the kinds of digital snooping that companies and governments can engage in if left unchecked.
Global Payments, which processes transactions for Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express, revealed that hackers had stolen 1.5 million credit card numbers. The company acknowledged the breach at least two weeks after it happened.
Across the pond, British citizens find their calls, texts, emails, web searches and other presumably private transactions in the sights of the government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron has said it is "vital" for his government to be able to monitor such behavior to stop serious crime and terrorism. Even among the British, who are used to far-reaching assertions of government privilege, this isn't going down well.
While many cases of the sharing of individual data occur with the consent of people who "opt in," others demonstrate the persistent erosion of rights and privileges for individuals who don't control their personal information.
The U.S. Congress, not surprisingly, is of two minds about all this. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle support legislation addressing cybersecurity and mandating prompt notification of consumers involved in data breaches.
But Republicans and Democrats seem to part company on the broader idea of a consumer privacy bill of rights advocated by the White House.
"We're not skeptical of the principles. We're skeptical of the need for legislation," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Cal. Bono Mack chairs a key subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which held hearings on the proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights last week.
Yet there is much to like about the idea of such a bill, which would grant consumers the right to understand and control the use of their personal information by companies with access to it. Consumers today have little recourse when online companies package and sell their personal information for uses the consumers never contemplated, and rarely even know when it happens.
Opponents say they are concerned that government involvement will stifle innovation and hinder the free market. That's more or less the airline industry's argument against airline passengers' bill of rights. But since the rules went into effect last year, fewer passengers have been stranded on tarmacs and deprived of food and water. Overall, the number of lengthy delays is way down. For all the problems in the airline industry, nobody has blamed them on the passengers' bill of rights.
In an election year, an online consumer privacy bill isn't likely to gain traction. But the threats to individual privacy online are rising.
For now, the best things consumers can do to protect themselves are to be vigilant, read the fine print and monitor their credit. Perhaps one day they'll have the law on their side.
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