On Nov. 16, in a federal court settlement, in the case of United States v. Google Inc., Google was charged $22.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission ( FTC ) commission claims that it had overridden user privacy settings on the Safari web browser to secretly track users. This case is emblematic of the marketing behavior of many commercial interests that seek to gather as much information about potential customers, into detailed profiles, to help sell products and to sell that information, as a product itself.
A March 2012, FTC report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change", states that "In today’s world of smart phones, smart grids, and smart cars, companies are collecting, storing, and sharing more information about consumers than ever before. Although companies use this information to innovate and deliver better products and services to consumers, they should not do so at the expense of consumer privacy." The report expands on privacy principles previously enunciated back in 2010. These include:
• Privacy by Design: Build in privacy at every stage of product development;
• Give consumers the ability to make decisions about their data at a relevant time and context;
• Make information collection and use practices transparent.
Earlier this year the Obama administration proposed a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, calling on Congress to pass legislation that applies the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights to commercial sectors that are not subject to existing Federal data privacy laws. In the report, "Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World", the President states that, "Neither consumers nor companies have a clear set of ground rules to apply in the commercial arena. As a result, it is difficult today for consumers to assess whether a company’s privacy practices warrant their trust."
The very same observation could be applied to the detailed personal information-gathering of various levels of government as exemplified in the functioning of the governmental "Fusion Centers". These centers are entities that integrate the gathering, storage, sharing, and analysis of national security intelligence. Fusion centers are owned and operated by state and local entities with support from federal partners.
In an article in the "The Brief" ( v. 70 nos. 3-4, Fall 2012 ) the ACLU of Illinois, comments on their new report on ,"Fusion Centers in Illinois". "Fusion Centers use a multiple of private and public resources to gather quantities of personal information about many people"
"The State Police fusion center has access to the databases owned and operated by private data mining corporations. These include Dun and Bradstreet, Experian, ISO ClaimSearch, and Lexis-Nexis (including its subsidiaries Accurint and ChoicePoint). These private databases provide non-criminal information about millions of innocent persons, including their identifying information, employment and medical history, property, licenses, credit, and neighbors and relatives."
This is where there is an actual coming together of the commercially gathered personal information and that which the government gathers on its own. While the government may be proscribed from gathering some of this information. They can just buy it from the commercial sector that has no such restrictions.
The FTC, the President and Congress appear to be aware of the need for rules on how commercial entities gather and use our personal information. However, since most of the work of the Fusion Centers is done in secret, they are in serious need of recognized privacy policies for how they carry out their work. The ACLU of Illinois recommends that :
• Fusion centers should be barred from gathering, storing, or sharing any information about any individual person absent individualized reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity.
• Fusion centers should be barred from gathering, storing, or sharing any information about any individual person due, in whole or in part, to that individual’s race, religion, political beliefs.
• Fusion centers should independently determine the accuracy of information, before they store and share that information.
• People should be able to find out whether a fusion center is storing information about them and to learn the substance of that information.
If commercial data gathering is perceived as endangering our privacy, then the vast new power of government fusion centers, also creates new threats that need to be addressed.