America’s Privacy Abuses — Past, Present and Potentially Future

Japanese-Americans need no reminders of how malicious use of personal information can be a serious threat. Our community remembers the lasting harm at places like Manzanar, Poston and Tule Lake. Those American concentration camps imprisoned nearly 120,000 people whose only crime was that they answered Japanese in response to the 1940 census question on race. We were promised privacy. But Census officials sent our data to the U.S. Secret Service.

While technologies have changed since those dark days, our need for personal privacy has not. Privacy is just as important today – especially on the internet where secretive companies track us and sell our personal information.

I only recently became aware of rapidly emerging technologies such as super cookies, which are stored permanently on our computers without our knowledge. Americans need better control over the ways that internet companies collect and share our personal data. We also need a uniform, easily understood set of privacy protections over our online information that covers all aspects of the internet.

Anyone doubting the need for Congress to act should consider this recent BusinessWeek headline: “Now Apps Can Track You Even After You Uninstall Them.” The magazine’s investigation revealed that mobile app designers for both iPhone and Android know which users have uninstalled their apps.

The companies can then target those unsuspecting users, “pelt[ing] the departed with ads aimed at winning them back.”

It gets worse. As a New York Times investigation last December showed, “Dozens of companies use smartphone locations to help advertisers and even hedge funds. They say it’s anonymous, but the data shows how personal it is.”

As a parent, it is especially troubling, to what degree children’s personal privacy appears to be increasingly at risk. A coalition of consumer and children’s rights groups recently filed a federal complaint documenting how apps in the Google Play Store violate a 1998 federal law governing children’s online privacy.

Given the sheer breadth of today’s privacy problems, there is only one realistic solution. Congress must use its constitutional power to ensure a better level of consumer protection for our personal data. That means a single set of rules covering the whole internet: websites, ad trackers, search engines, content delivery networks, mobile apps, and everything else.

Congressional action will also address concerns that have spurred state legislatures to write their own privacy bills. While well-meaning, state-level regulation of the internet will inevitably lead to mass confusion and other problems. Privacy rules that differ as data crosses state boundaries will create inconsistent protections across the internet and leave consumers exposed.

The harm of an unassuming census question may seem far removed from damage currently being caused by big tech companies using our information to hike their profits. But the common thread is clear: a lack of federal privacy safeguards and no avenue for people to control their own information.

Our data is valuable. Data is what allows everyone from the federal government to your local supermarket to evaluate present need and plan for the future. Data is also what tailors our online experience to our interests.

But when our personal information is abused, whether by our government or big tech companies, the damage is substantial and lasting. From stolen Social Security numbers that siphon billions in taxpayer funds to leaked online habits, our privacy is at risk — and the stakes are high. That’s why it is long past time for Congress to pass a new comprehensive federal privacy protection law.

David Inoue is the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest Asian-American civil rights organization.

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