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Senator Al Franken: Privacy is a Fundamental Right

Wham Bam! Senator Al Franken declared 'Privacy is a fundamental right.' Tired of privacy being a casualty, his letter to NTIA came out swinging about American citizens' rights to mobile, location and even biometric privacy.

By Ms. Smith on Thu, 04/05/12 - 1:10pm.

Senator Al Franken is an outspoken advocate for privacy who understands technology and he has again come out swinging for our privacy rights. He serves as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. "Privacy is a fundamental right," he wrote in bold to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. NTIA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, advises President Obama on telecommunications and information policy issues.

Franken laid it out, how the Fourth Amendment and our privacy rights are being stomped. "Like most Americans my age, I grew up thinking of privacy as a right we hold against government intrusion into our lives," Franken said in his letter to NTIA [PDF]. Any bold or italicized text are his emphasis.

He focused on "(1) mobile privacy, specifically location privacy; (2) the privacy of biometric information, especially information derived from the use of facial recognition technology; and (3) the privacy of web browsing information and records." Of course he mentioned cookies, being tracked online through web browsers, and that Do Not Track must be an enforceable system which holds violators accountable. But he did such a great job on other privacy rights, you should know what he said on our behalf.

Franken's letter [PDF] broke down We the People's right to privacy as opposed to the Fourth Amendment applying to corporations who treat consumers like products. His main points were as followed:

"First, I believe that all Americans have a fundamental right to know who has their personal information and how it is being used." He used Carrier IQ software and other third parties on mobile phones as well as OnStar to demonstrate the lack of transparency about collecting sensitive data about people. "Burying disclosures in a privacy policy" is not going to get it. Instead, "transparency means making sure that users know about and understand how their data is being used." 

"Second, I believe that all Americans have a fundamental right to control who gets their personal information and who it is shared with." When people install apps on their mobile devices, even if they grant permission for the app to slurp up location information, they are often unaware, "that the apps were then disclosing that information to smartphone companies, analytics companies, marketers, and other third parties. Thus, the users of these apps had no choice as to the secondary external uses of their location information. This is a serious violation of privacy."

"Third, I believe that our fundamental right to privacy includes the right to know that our sensitive information—wherever it is—is safe and secure." Franken mentioned major security breaches involving sensitive health data.

"Fourth, I believe that concentration in the telecommunications and technology sectors has reduced the incentives for many companies to protect consumers' privacy." He mostly focused on online markets collecting and aggregating our data in exchange for offering consumers' free services.

This is along the same lines as Franken's speech to the American Bar Association. Antitrust is a "big problem if you care about privacy" Franken stated last week before using Google and Facebook as examples of how privacy is too often a casualty. "You are not their client, you are their product." His entire speech was impressive. "The Fourth Amendment doesn't apply to corporations. The Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to Silicon Valley. And you can't impeach Google if it breaks its 'Don't be evil' campaign pledge."

Meanwhile back to Franken's comments to NTIA, he wrote, "Finally, I believe that federal and state authorities should rigorously enforce privacy laws—and that whenever possible, private citizens should have the right to personally enforce their right to privacy." He added how important mobile privacy is as, "Location information is extremely sensitive, and yet we are not doing enough to protect it."

The "alarming breaches" mentioned under this covered everything from victims of GPS stalking, smartphone apps secretly handing over our location to the dreaded Third Party, and even Microsoft, Google and Apple tracking mobile users without permission. You can't even trust some cars, as Franken noted the Nissan Leaf automatically leaked their vehicles' location, speed, and destination to many third party websites. He said his bill, the Location Privacy Protection Act was a solution to these privacy failures.

Then Franken pushed for people to have biometric privacy, especially with respect to facial recognition technology. Everybody has jumped on the facial recognition biometric bandwagon, from Facebook to the FBI, but strong safeguards are needed to ensure "privacy and civil liberties so that the benefits of these biometric technologies aren't outweighed by negative effects on privacy."

Your face can be the key to an incredible amount of information about you-and facial recognition technology can allow strangers to access that information without your knowledge, without your permission, and in about as much time as it takes to snap a photo.

Franken concluded his comments to NTIA with:

I believe that privacy is a fundamental right—as fundamental as our freedom of speech or religion. I also believe that it is a right applicable not just against the government, but against the multitudes of companies and third parties that we encounter every day online and in the real world. My hope is that the multi stakeholder process, combined with legislative action, will go a long way in making this right a reality.

Great job by Senator Al Franken. May the Easter Bunny bring him something especially yummy. We need him to please keep fighting for Americans' fundamental right to privacy!

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