Consumer Privacy & Technology
by Marie Miller
Consumer privacy laws must keep pace with technology.
Consumer privacy and technology is not an oxymoron, yet there is a delicate balancing act between consumer expectations, corporate profits and government interests. Internet browsing habits are sold for top dollar. Red light cameras, Internet cookies and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are commonplace. The power and reach of the government into the private lives of citizens expanded with passage of The Patriot Act. Through it all, consumer privacy laws have failed to keep pace with rapid technological advances.
Consumers browse websites often unaware of what information is being collected from them and how it is used. Many sites place electronic cookies, tracking software, onto your hard drive. The cookies transmit details on what sites you visit, how long you stay there and what purchases you've made. Data mining, the culling of unique information about individual consumers, is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it's growing. Businesses use the data to provide targeted advertising but since the data is stored electronically, the possibility of hacking exists.
In February 2010, Google logged over 1 million searches for "hidden camera" and "spy camera." The legality of taking and posting lewd pictures of unsuspecting women varies from state to state. Retailers sometimes place hidden cameras in dressing rooms to track merchandise. Customer privacy concerns have prompted some stores to, instead, utilize RFID tags, small electronic tracking devices attached to merchandise. Seemingly innocuous, these devices also prompt new concerns. No legislation regulates how retailers track paid merchandise once it leaves stores.
In his novel "1984," George Orwell envisioned a totalitarian government monitoring its citizen's every move. We're not quite there yet, but with red light cameras, cell phone eavesdropping and wiretapping, it's hard not to label Orwell an oracle. The Patriot Act, passed during a time of crisis, greatly expanded the ability of the U.S. government to spy on citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that the law could be used to access library and membership records and even genetic data.
Fraud and theft
Consumers who use credit and debit cards are always at risk. Skimmers, data thieves, can attach small electronic readers to the cards to extract the data. New cards are then created in the names of other individuals. Online, the simple act of opening an email or visiting the wrong website can lead to hackers being able to install keylogging software onto your PC, learning your passwords and accessing your financial data.
While the U.S. Constitution does not specifically guarantee the right to privacy, Justices Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis wrote about the issue in 1890. They maintained it was a penumbral right, not mentioned in the Constitution but still acknowledged. The last attempt to update the ECPA, the Consumer Privacy Protection Act of 2002, languished in committee. In March 2010, The Digital Due Process Coalition, comprised of Google, Microsoft and Ebay, urged Congress to enact a series of reforms to the ECPA.
While waiting for lawmakers to catch up to technology, consumers can take steps to protect themselves. Read privacy policies for websites you visit often. Clear browsing data frequently, including all tracking cookies. Choose strong passwords, change them frequently and ensure that anti virus and firewall software is installed and updated on your PC. At retail stores, shop at stores with generous return policies and try the clothes on at home. Review credit card and bank statements frequently. Finally, write to your state and federal representatives to urge a comprehensive update to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and ask them to reexamine elements of the Patriot Act.