EDITORIAL: Digitizing erodes privacy
Jan 16, 2013 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
While the courts have said police can't slap a tracking device on a suspect's car without a warrant, there's no law preventing advertisers and other businesses from logging every move made by someone with a smartphone.
Far from fighting this privacy intrusion, millions of cellphone users actually help make it possible by enabling their phone's mobile tracking software with just the tap of a touchscreen.
But the growing sophistication of the gadgets that Americans tote most places -- including their bedsides each night -- has triggered a welcome look by Washington policymakers at new privacy protections.
On one track, the Senate is exploring welcome new limits on the use of digital communications and data by law enforcement -- an issue raised in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for police to use a GPS tracking device without a search warrant. The implications of the case for phone users have yet to be clarified by federal judges. Meanwhile, cellphone companies report receiving millions of inquiries for information on customers under still-vague rules in place for acquiring such data.
That has created a situation in which core privacy freedoms are under threat, mostly because technology seems to have outpaced the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986.
The answer is to update the act. The hope is that the judiciary panel chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), will continue to push for common ground with the Republican-led House on proposals he's put forward to protect "private lives in cyberspace."
On another front that's just as important, the Senate has begun to grapple with the more routine tracking of cellphone users for commercial purposes.
The idea isn't to squelch the myriad creative marketing efforts that are key to spurring a thriving digital economy. Indeed, some consumers, as much as businesses, value the personalized advertising to which they're exposed, as evidenced by the success of such digital pitches.
But there's a potential dark side to mining so much data on consumers, not to mention so-called stalking apps that actually pose a risk of someone being preyed upon. Over time, businesses can use this information to amass an intimate portrait of a person's associations, financial status, and even health outlook.
The antidote to such intrusiveness could come in the form of a proposal from Sen. Al Franken (D. Minn.), also approved late last year by Leahy's panel.
Franken -- yes, the same former television comedian who created the memorable "Mobile Uplink Unit" skit -- would require that cellphone companies seek a user's permission to collect and share location data. Stalking apps would be outlawed, and mobile services would have to disclose the ad networks and other parties tracing consumers.
But whether or not Congress acts, consumers themselves need to be much more careful about clicking away their privacy.
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