Science, Technology, and Social Media

Data Collection Is Out Of Hand, America Needs New Privacy Law

Americans have become goldfishes in the transparent bowl of a data-driven era with big tech mining user data like their existence depends on it — and it arguably does. But private companies are not the only ones digging for American golden data. Government agencies are complicit too. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department reportedly trialed the services of Voyager Labs, a data collection company, for four months. There is only one way to describe what Voyager Labs does: harvest and analyze user information that would otherwise have been unavailable through regular means.

The mobile surveillance of citizens became a norm in the early 2000s, and to an extent, almost socially acceptable since it was necessary to preempt and stop violent attacks. But recent activities by companies and government agencies alike unequivocally point to one thing: existing privacy laws and regulations have grossly failed to protect Americans. At the very least, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) needs strengthening to tightly regulate how software companies collect, use, and sell private data.

After all, tech companies have consistently failed to match big words and promises with actions. For example, Tesla’s North American owners manual for the Model 3 and Model Y used to claim that the company protects drivers’ privacy by anonymizing data obtained from cars. However, Tesla recently rolled back this policy, but it is not the first to do this. Social media companies like Facebook and TikTok have historically been cheeky with user data, changing policies on a whim, or even denying plausible involvement in a breach of users’ trust. The spotlight also shines on smart technology companies like Amazon, Google, Roku, Netflix, and even internet service providers, which mine user data and sell them to data brokers directly and indirectly.

Options like turning off targeted advertising are placebo, and users still get ads based on their phone habits and online activities. Why? Because digital companies bury their ability to still collect data in their deliberately ambiguous terms of service and privacy policy. The realization of this fact makes many people turn to burner phones and accounts for some decent privacy in their digital activities.

Using a fake account does little to stop a company from collecting your biometric and voice data or data brokers that still aggregate your information on databases for sale. You would need to specifically navigate pages and jump through several redirects to compel Facebook, Amazon — and companies with that options — to delete your information for good.

For data brokers, most of whom obtain information about you from private companies and public records, the opt-out process is more complicated (here are a few: Go Lookup, Verispy, and Zabasearch). Also, there is no guarantee a data broker will respond to your request to take down your information and stop monetizing it. So, most persons use privacy protection services like DeleteRecords, to handle the opt-out faster and more efficiently.

Although effective, you will need to perform a removal every other month because the algorithms of most data brokers start compiling new information about you soon after deleting it. It is also possible to actively monitor your data and delete them as they pop up on aggregate websites. Data collectors claim to have no control over this process and say it is automated — again, distancing themselves from the activities of the software they created.

Ultimately, the only way out of this nightmare circles back to legislation and regulatory oversight. Americans need new data privacy laws, and data brokers need regulatory oversight, and we needed them yesterday.

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Duncan Idaho

Duncan is a science and technology reporter for CDN and serves as the lead geek correspondent. Follow him if you like rockets, mobile tech, video games or ... just about anything nerdy.

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