America’s Perilous Patchwork of Privacy Laws

The United States, unlike many other developed nations, does not have a federal consumer data protection law. Instead, a patchwork of laws apply in different situations. We have laws that apply to medical records, other laws that apply to banking records, still others that apply to data collected by the government, and so on. And some of those laws are stronger than others.

As a concept, the notion of online privacy seems to rank right up there with the Tooth Fairy.Facebook has declared that all posts by members on their walls are public property; Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) keeps getting into trouble with various governments over the data its Street View cars collect; and you can forget about your Tweets being private — the Library of Congress is recording them.

“Consumers can’t expect much privacy in online services like Google, Facebook and Twitter,” Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.There are few laws protecting consumers on the Web, Reitman pointed out. Meanwhile, law enforcement “continues to seek ways to expand their online surveillance powers.”

For example, a federal magistrate judge in Virginia has ruled that the government can collect the private records of three Twitter users as part of its investigation into WikiLeaks, and that it can prevent those users and the public from seeing some of the documentation submitted to justify obtaining those records.

This could set a precedent that will let the government secretly amass information related to individuals’ communications over the Internet, the EFF has cautioned. Even when the federal government tries to introduce new services, new problem areas open up.

For example, the United States Department of Transportation has come up with the Next Generation 911 Project in an attempt to let consumers contact emergency services through multiple means, including text messaging, photos and email.

However, the EFF pointed out in comments filed with the Federal Communication Commission that the proposal might provide data such as medical histories to first responders. That’s a well-intentioned move that could backfire because, as the EFF stated, 911 calls are subject to public disclosure in most parts of the country. This could conceivably make details about a person’s illness or medical history publicly available to anyone who asks for them.

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