Op-eds on Online Privacy

OpEd: Online Privacy Protection: Signs are Hopeful for Federal Action

Glenn D. Magpantay, Executive Director, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)

When it comes to keeping sensitive information private, no one should be more alert to Congress’ latest actions than the LGBTQ community.

Less than several months into this year, Senate and House leaders have already convened multiple congressional committee hearings on to how best to protect our online data. This covers our search records, browser history, advertising tracking, social media information and much more. The goal is to help us understand who accesses, stores and especially sells our vast amount of deeply personal information.

Internet privacy has become a truly bipartisan rallying cry across the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties appear genuinely interested in finding common ground on a solution.

“No matter who you are, you deserve privacy,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) correctly noted. He added that consumers don’t care “whether their information is being mined by a tech giant or a small business. They just want to be protected.”

At the other side of the aisle, Republican leader Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) this year fleshed out a federal privacy solution with proposals including a uniform national standard revolving around transparency and accountability. Importantly, she called out the inherent technological and legal difficulties of “a patchwork of state laws” – a particularly timely critique given that some legislatures appear interested in trying to regulate privacy within their boundaries.

The parameters outlined by Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. McMorris Rodgers are a good foundation for legislation. A uniform federal online privacy standard is the clearest and best way to help consumers understand their rights. This standard should apply to every company collecting our online data.

Any data collection, and especially sale of personal data, must first involve our full disclosure and approval. This disclosure must be clear and legible so that anyone using a service understands what happens to their data before signing up.

Above all, Congress should put an end to anonymous and undisclosed tracking and information sharing just because we once visited a website or used an app that never disclosed its ad tracker policies. That important issue gained special notice recently when a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Facebook collects “intensely personal information from many popular smartphone apps” even if the user has no connection to the company.

Privacy rights are a major issue for the LGBTQ community. Our members often pursue personal lives and lifestyles in secret because of fear that disclosure will spark condemnation, loss of friends and family relationships, and even job loss.

Indeed, incidents of violence are all too real for the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign has written extensively about violence and workplace discrimination against our members. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for the LGBTQ community – and that didn’t even count the victims from the Pulse tragedy.

Recently, The New York Times published the results of an investigation into mobile app privacy with this headline: “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret.”

Authored by the award-winning Richard Harris, the article described how “at least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services….”  Many of those businesses, according to The Times, claim to track as many as 200 million mobile devices.

The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal and other independent investigations during the past year show the gaping holes in current law on online privacy. For the LGBTQ community, this issue’s importance cannot be overstated.

Federal action on a national privacy standard based on disclosure and transparency is crucial. Congress cannot wait! It must act now!

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The danger of failing to reclaim our online privacy
By Glenn Magpantay

Corporate scandals involving tech companies’ abuse of our private online data have dominated the headlines.  The implications for marginalized Americans, especially LGBTQ and racial-minority communities, are huge.

Despite progress for LGBTQ people in America, there are still many areas in the U.S. where we can be denied housing or fired from a job solely due to who we are. Physical violence and threats are still a common occurrence against LGBTQ and brown people. Every week last year on average, there was an anti-LGBTQ murder; hate crimes against South Asians spiked.

Faced with these and other obstacles, pressured to act “straighter” and “whiter,” it is depressing but understandable that many in the LGBTQ and Asian Pacific Islander communities, in attempts to stay safe, choose to live dual lives—online and offline, with trusted friends and in public. But the proliferation of websites, ad trackers, search engines, and other online companies mining, selling and profiling our personal information is a direct threat to how marginalized folks choose to lead their lives.

That’s why it is urgent for Congress to pass a comprehensive law giving all Internet users greater right to control our own private information, use it to our own benefit and remain protected from discriminatory behavior across the web.

Even a cursory look at recent scandals shows this problem’s magnitude. This week, dating site Match.com acknowledged that it had reactivated “a limited number” of closed accounts. That begs an obvious question: If accounts were closed, why did Match still have these users’ personal information, apparently years after closure?

Facebook sanctioned discrimination and allowed violations of fair housing laws by allowing advertisers to screen out “undesirables” form seeing ads.

This month, 23 consumer and privacy groups documented that Google’s YouTube website has been gathering data on kids as young as 12 in apparent violation of Federal law. In a Federal complaint, the groups allege that “illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of U.S. children.”

Perhaps worst of all, back in March, we learned about the massive Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. 71 million Americans had personal information sent to an outside firm for the benefit of the Trump for President campaign.

Loss of control over our personal information is deeply concerning. For communities who have typically turned to the Internet as a safe-haven, the implications of these ongoing privacy scandals are especially serious. Many websites hold out the promise of being a place for likeminded people to connect. This is especially important for people whom much of society would prefer to keep at the edges.  But the repeated breaches of this promise and commoditization and distribution of our online information represents a huge breach of trust by companies that profit off these websites.

There is no substitute for Congressional action. State laws are helpful but not sufficient. Indeed, Match.com is based in Texas, which is one of 32 states with an online privacy law that supposedly requires companies to destroy personal information.

While Congress is not known for fast action, the current focus on technology issues and the related net neutrality issue could provide a unique opportunity for progress.  While net neutrality has traditionally focused on broadband providers, we now understand that internet protections can only be effective if they apply everywhere online and don’t omit the big tech platforms like Facebook and Google and services like Match.com that so powerfully impact our lives.  Neutrality rules are only meaningful if they ensure that everyone can participate fully, equally, and safely online.

It often takes a crisis to spur Congress to act, and that’s what we have right now.  The internet has become central to our politics, our culture, and our economy, but marginalized communities are once again at risk of being shut out.  Peharps the combined gravity of the neutrality and privacy issues can reinforce and propel each other forward.

Our digital selves are never truly “anonymized,” and they are not cold, meaningless points of data —online we bare our colors, creeds, and hearts. We deserve the right to reclaim our online selves. Only Congressional action can make that happen—and it must happen now.

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The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) is a federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander organizations.