Editorials

We Californians have a right to privacy. But what does it mean in the digital age?

From airport security to your household appliances to your child’s toy box, the privacy isn’t what it used to be.
From airport security to your household appliances to your child’s toy box, the privacy isn’t what it used to be. Common Sense Media

In the 16 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, we have grown accustomed to taking off our belts and shoes, among other indignities as we follow the dictates of surly Transportation Security Administration guards for the privilege of stepping aboard cramped airplanes.

As UC Davis professor and inveterate reader Julie Sze learned, TSA agents are asking at least some air travelers to place their reading material in bins before boarding. We guess The Sacramento Bee, National Geographic and “Goodnight Moon” would pass inspection. We’re not sure about “The Satanic Verses,” anything written in Arabic, or something truly radical such as The Bible, or the Koran.

We understand that security experts say liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces in our carry-on bags constitute security threats. So we discard them, unless we don’t, which happened at the Wichita airport named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A tired 82-year-old woman recently became agitated that a TSA agent seized her bottle of hand lotion. Some sort of scuffle ensued, and she was arrested and spent two hours in jail. No word on whether the TSA guard was ever counseled that 82-year women, even if they’re grumpy, deserve measures of respect.

That MLB, NASCAR, NPR app on your iPhone? Noted. Click on a Facebook post by your mother-in-law? Facebook takes a virtual note.

Mostly, as The Bee’s Dan Morain and Zócalo’s Joe Mathews report in this week’s California Forum, we lose our privacy without knowing it is being pilfered. Every website we visit, every magazine we buy, every purchase we make is recorded. That MLB, NASCAR, NPR app on your iPhone? Noted. Click on a Facebook post by your mother-in-law? Facebook takes a virtual note.

Big Data shaped the 2016 election, as The New York Times and others have noted. “Duck Dynasty” TV star Willie Robertson, wearing a star spangled headband, spoke at the opening night of the Republican National Convention because “Dynasty” viewers were Trump voters. People who tuned into “The Walking Dead” tended to support Trump, too, particularly in Appalachia. So the Trump campaign smartly placed ads adjacent to the zombie show. Such are politics in the digital age.

In February, Vizio Inc., one of the world’s largest purveyors of internet-connected TVs, paid $2.2 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission and state of New Jersey that it installed software that collected data from 11 million consumers without their knowledge.

The software collected second-by-second details about viewing habits and sold the data to others who used the information to get into your wallets. Does anyone truly think Vizio is the only manufacturer of “smart” devices that collects data behind our backs?

It’s one thing for adults, consenting or not, to get their information pockets picked. It’s quite another if data thieves break into a child’s world.

In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission updated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1998 when relatively few people were online. Common Sense Media, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps parents understand media and technology, offered this advice to the FTC:

“Operators should be responsible for the data collection mechanisms on their sites or services. Parents and children should not be the ones required to investigate the presence and data collection practices of plug-ins or third parties on the site(s) they wish to use.”

We consumers must beware of the capabilities of the devices we buy. But few of us are technologically literate enough to understand nuances of all the internet-connected things. Tech firms must be as transparent as possible. Government must police those that chose to remain opaque.

“Technology is amoral. It is our job as legislators to put morality around the work that is being done,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat who has been pushing for privacy legislation for as long as she has been in office. “There has to be an intersection between humanity and technology.”

This year, she is carrying Senate Bill 327 to require clear disclosures about the capabilities of internet-connected devices, whether they’re, as she says, “Teddy bears or toasters.” The bill has stalled. Without a doubt, Jackson’s bill needs to be refined. That should happen in the coming months, and that discussion will be important. We must understand the capabilities of devices to collect data and the implications.

In 1972, California voters approved a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to privacy. The proponents’ argument, advanced by then state Sen. George Moscone and then Assemblyman Ken Cory, focused on an all-knowing state.

“The proliferation of government snooping and data collecting is threatening to destroy our traditional freedoms,” they wrote in the ballot argument for the measure. “Government agencies seem to be competing to compile the most extensive sets of dossiers of American citizens. Computerization of records makes it possible to create ‘cradle-to-grave’ profiles on every American.”

They also wrote about industry collecting and storing data: “Each time we apply for a credit card or a life insurance policy, file a tax return, interview for a job, or get a driver’s license, a dossier is opened and an informational profile is sketched. Modern technology is capable of monitoring, centralizing and computerizing this information which eliminates any possibility of individual privacy.”

Prescient. Forty-five years later, the right to be left alone is gone, so long as we remain connected. Many of us who are on the grid have become inured to what we’ve lost. It has happened over the years, byte by byte, bit by bit.

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