The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC) has launched Demand Your dotRights, an online privacy initiative designed to spotlight the need to upgrade laws protecting consumer data. An interactive web hub for the campaign, features a two-minute Flash video that explains the digital information trail and illustrates what happens to our personal information after we log off.
When consumers learn, shop, connect and share online, their information is collected behind the scenes in ways they often do not realize. Websites can collect detailed information about an individual—their politics, hobbies, relationships and more. Outdated privacy laws often fail to keep this personal information from being shared or sold, or from being handed over to the government with little to no judicial oversight.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the federal law that is supposed to safeguard the privacy of digital communications, was written in 1986, long before the Internet as it is used today even existed.
"The more we do online, the more digital footprints we leave behind. Once our personal information is collected, we don't know how it will be used or abused," said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director at the ACLU of Northern California. "Privacy law doesn't auto-update, so we have to work together on an upgrade."
The government regularly demands that companies turn over Americans' personal data that they collect online. In one instance in 2006 a U.S. Attorney demanded book purchase records of 24,000 Amazon.com customers. (In a show of loyalty to users, the company successfully opposed the subpoena.) Facebook reportedly receives up to 100 demands each week seeking information about its users. Other companies, like Google, don't make public how often information about their users is demanded or disclosed.
This sweeping digital surveillance is increasingly wreaking havoc on the lives of innocent people. According to the ACLU-NC, for example, in July of this year, a Maryland woman lost her accounting job after a background check performed through the FBI's criminal database indicated, erroneously, that she was unsuitable for the job. Additionally, children have been added to the "No Fly" list, and peaceful political protestors have been improperly placed on watch lists.
The ACLU-NC wants consumers, policymakers, and businesses to work together to define a clear legal and policy framework that fits our modern online world and keeps personal information from being misused. 'A September 2009 report from UC Berkeley and University of Pennsylvania revealed that 69% of American adults feel there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything a website knows about them and that 92% believe there should be a law giving individuals the right to delete their information from a site.
"Many of these seemingly free online services come with a hidden fee--control over information about our private lives," said Ozer. "No one should be forced to choose between using the Internet and keeping personal information from being misused."
ACLU-NC experts and partners have highlighted privacy issues related to Google Book Search and third party applications like quizzes on Facebook. More than 115,000 people have taken ACLU-NC's Facebook privacy quiz since its release in August. Additionally, a primer produced by ACLU-NC, "Privacy and Free Speech: It's Good for Business," offers hands-on tips for how businesses can build their reputations--while saving time and money--by properly protecting customers' privacy and free speech.