When it comes to our most sensitive information, we rely on people we know well and trust. We choose our doctors, financial planners, accountants, and lawyers based on a matrix of personal rapport, character judgment, faith in ability, and reputation. Each of these relationships relies on our confidence in the other person’s discretion. We have an understanding that what should be private will remain private.
Today our data is collected, transmitted, stored, and managed in complex ways. This includes medical test results, tax records, bank transactions, and social media posts. Who do we rely on to protect this personal information in a networked world? If we are to take a measure of personal responsibility for our privacy, shouldn’t we have an understanding of the positions and people who impact the laws and regulations regarding privacy and data security?
Let’s meet the key players at the nexus of privacy law, Big Data, information security, and consumer protection. The time is right to champion privacy by getting to know your privacy regulators.
Privacy is a Global Issue: Meet Ireland’s Helen Dixon
Recently appointed Irish data regulator, Helen Dixon, holds one of the most important privacy positions in the world. She comes from a business-focused background having worked with two U.S. multinationals over the course of 11 years. Replacing Billy Hawkes, who held the position of Data Protection Commissioner for 10 years, Dixon is now responsible for handling privacy complaints about companies based in Ireland.
So why is Dixon’s position so important? Due to favorable tax structure, Ireland is the home to the major European headquarters of tech giants like Google and Facebook. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is an independent body with the responsibility of safeguarding data. With massive data centers conducting business in Ireland, Dixon has sway over the regulations governing more than one billion internet users.
Privacy is a Consumer Protection Issue: Meet the U.S. FTC Commissioners
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for consumer protection and eliminating anticompetitive business practices. The FTC is headed by five Commissioners who are elected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The FTC often works with businesses on privacy and security issues.
At the FTC, Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Commissioners Julie Brill, and Maureen Ohlhausen have all been outspoken about privacy issues. The Commission also provides excellent staff reports on privacy topics. In her opening remarks (PDF) at a recent Big Data conference, Chairwoman Ramirez spoke directly about the FTC’s role in preserving privacy rights:
“Big data can have big consequences. Those consequences can be either enormously beneficial to individuals and society or deeply detrimental. It will almost certainly be a mixture of the two. But it is the responsibility of the FTC and others to help ensure that we maximize the power of big data for its capacity for good while identifying and minimizing the risks it presents. As we navigate the transformative terrain of big data, it is vital that we work to ensure that technological innovation benefits all consumers, whatever their backgrounds.”
Part of the FTC’s job in championing consumer privacy rights includes enforcement. Most recently, the FTC brought action against Yelp and TinyCo for violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), specifically improper collection of kids’ data. Yelp and TinyCo settled with the FTC, paying out six-figure civil penalties each.
Privacy is a Local Issue: Meet your Attorney General
In most states, Attorney Generals are elected, which means you have a direct say in choosing an Attorney General who shares your privacy values. Several prominent Attorney Generals have high-profile interests in privacy and data security. Two examples include Kamala Harris of California and George Jepsen of Connecticut.
Kamala Harris is a known consumer privacy advocate. According to the California Office of the Attorney General,
“Californians have a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy, and protecting their privacy rights is one of Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’s top priorities.”
Harris created an eCrime Unit to investigate and prosecute technology crime, and Cybersecurity in the Golden State is also a major concern. Harris’ office has published recommended practices for businesses, including a Guide to Privacy Policies and Do Not Track Disclosures, and “Privacy on the Go: Recommendations for the Mobile Ecosystem (PDF).”
George Jepsen of Connecticut has made headlines recently for questioning Apple’s health data practices as they relate to the new Apple Watch, as well as Google Glass privacy protections. Jepsen’s office also publishes consumer resources on credit, identity theft, and an assortment of Internet issues.How concerned about privacy issues is your Attorney General?
Privacy is a Presidential Issue: Meet White House CTO Megan Smith
While Megan Smith is not a regulator, in her new role as White House CTO she is an advisor to President Obama on technology, privacy and cybersecurity issues. Smith most recently worked at Google and has deep technical expertise thanks to her time in the private sector working for a range of technology companies. At Smith’s side is Deputy CTO Alexander Macgillivray, a former Twitter lawyer.
President Obama had this to say about Smith and Macgillivray’s recent appointment:
“Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment. I am confident that in her new role as America’s Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people. I am grateful for her commitment to serve, and I look forward to working with her and with our new Deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, in the weeks and months ahead.”
Privacy is Your Issue: Meet Your Personal and Social Responsibility
You can be a privacy champion in your community. Advocacy begins with an awareness of the public officials charged with protecting consumer privacy. From there, you can follow their activity, from enforcement actions to the guides and reports they publish with helpful tips and how-tos. This information not only will help you develop and enhance your own privacy practice, but it will help you work with others in service to your privacy values.