If you think you're hearing about privacy all the time, you're probably right.
Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, says that more than 20 privacy-related bills are pending in the state legislature, as technological advances and electronic communications have made it easier for personal information to be gathered and circulated among companies, governments and other entities.
In an interview recently at the ACLU office in San Francisco, Ozer talked about efforts by lawmakers and public-interest groups such as the ACLU to protect Americans' privacy. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q What are the most important online privacy issues today?
A Transparency and government accessing data being held by companies without obtaining a warrant. So is updating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, but also state corollaries that exist. Last year, we co-sponsored a bill that would've required state law enforcement to get a warrant to get location data from a company, and that made it through the legislature but got vetoed by the governor.
There's this huge incentive for companies to collect and retain data for long periods. They've become this treasure trove of who we are, where we go and what we do. It's become this honey pot for the government to be able to reach in and get that information. That's a huge issue for the ACLU, particularly here in California, where we have a constitutional right to privacy.
Q Do consumers really care? Studies recently published by Carnegie Mellon researchers showed that they say they do, but their actions don't reflect it.
A The privacy harm is often delayed. Because they don't know how the information is being used down the line, they don't see the potential risk.
Behavioral economists have seen over the years that human nature is to underestimate long-term risk. People think there is no cost. That's why it's important to pass laws like the California Right to Know Act. (Last week, AB 1291 was pulled by its author, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, after it ran into opposition from tech companies and other businesses. It requires companies to disclose to users what personal information has been collected and shared about them with other companies. Lowenthal has vowed to reintroduce the bill next year.)
For example, you're sent a coupon offer for $5 off, but you're told this is what we're going to collect and this is who we're going to share it with. So you might think, hmm, it may not be worth $5 for the following 12 entities to get my health or financial information or my location data. For one individual, it may be worth that, but for others it may not be. People need the information to make those cost-benefit decisions. It's like nutrition labeling, like buying a supposedly low-fat cookie.
Q Can you talk about the harms some people may not be aware of?
A Some landlords have secretly used data-broker lists (which are traded or sold by companies that collect information about consumers) to prescreen tenants and not accept their applications. Data-broker lists targeting the elderly have been used to steal money from seniors. There are some actual harms we can show. Imagine how many others there are that people just can't link to. If you don't get a job, you don't get a mortgage, or someone's able to locate you, but you have no idea how these things happened because you can't connect the dots.
As awareness about these issues arises, you're starting to see some companies take some steps to make them look good, but not actually give users the full picture. They're aware of the "app gap." They don't want people to know the information being shared with third-party apps.
Q How is the ACLU of Northern California different from the other ACLU offices around the country?
A A lot of the major tech players are here. A combination of the fact that they're here, plus that the legislature and the attorney general are very active on these issues, and our constitutional right to privacy -- we can sort of be the incubator for change.
We've worked with Silicon Valley companies -- such as on CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act), digital-due process and issues that have to do with government access -- a lot of the times we're aligned. We wrote a primer for them on privacy and free speech. If we can help them identify issues before they spend a lot of time and money on their product, it's better for them. There are areas where we agree to disagree. I guess the Right to Know Act has become one of those, although we see this bill as a moderate step. There are actually bills that seek to stop collection or sharing of all this information.
Q Why do they oppose bills such as Right to Know?
A One of their arguments is that it's too cumbersome. They have called it "unworkable." But some companies (such as Google (GOOG) and Facebook) already comply with European laws that require them to share similar information.
The companies know what they're collecting, what they're using it for, how long they're retaining it for, and who they're sharing it with -- and consumers don't. If you don't know what's happening, you don't know how it affects you and you don't push for change.
Follow Levi Sumagaysay at Twitter.com/levisu.
1. She once worked for the NBA as a consultant, connecting NBA players with community service projects.
2. She was captain of the water polo team in college.
3. She lived for a semester in South Africa.
4. Before she went to law school, she ran a youth program for the Santa Clara County volunteer exchange and is still in contact with some of the students who participated.
5. When she went away to college, she had never heard of the Internet. When she came back to Palo Alto, where she grew up, it was the dot-com boom.
Education: Amherst College and UC Berkeley
Company: ACLU of Northern California
Position: Technology and civil liberties policy director
Previously: Intellectual-property law