Privacy rights and Big Data

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Facebook has absorbed the hit, but this conversation is overdue.

THIS HAD TO HAPPEN. And it's about time.

After a very bad week for Facebook - revelations 50 million users had their personal data hijacked, and another story detailing how Facebook allowed the Android app to vacuum up users' text and call logs - there's at least some indications the federal government is beginning to take such invasions of privacy seriously.

It appears Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will be summoned before Congress to explain his company's actions. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission confirmed it is investigating Facebook's privacy practices.

Other tech giants - including Google - have been feeling the pressure, too.

ACROSS THE POND in Europe, for example, regulators have been much more aggressive about preserving privacy options for consumers. In fact, reports suggest the European Union may be targeting Google operations there in the wake of various data breaches.

So why is this all happening? Money, of course.

The issue stems from the high value to marketers and businesses of big data about users' preferences. The more sellers know about what you do and what you like, the closer they can tailor marketing messages to convert your interests into sales and profits. Most people probably have noticed, for example, that if they surf the internet looking at a specific product - say, leather jackets - then ads for leather jackets will follow them forward from that point. That's not an accident. The data has been captured and turned into a personalized advertising campaign.

There's nothing inherently illegal or even wrong about that. In fact, we're pretty sure lots of people want it that way. It makes their search for products easier and more efficient. Suddenly pulling the plug is not the answer, even if it were possible, because it could (1) inconvenience interested consumers, (2) hurt businesses and cost jobs, and (3) perhaps damage America's pre-eminent position in technology matters.

THAT, HOWEVER, shouldn't be the end of the story. The headlines haunting Facebook show the dark side of data mining, and how without their permission or knowledge users can have their personal and private information swept up for profits. Or, even worse, as Facebook has acknowledged, to target fake news stories by foreign actors trying to stir up anti-democracy mischief.

Increasingly, it appears, a regulatory itch is growing in the country. There have been too many stories about data breaches and abuses. Polls suggest people are becoming less willing to trust tech companies with their personal information, for good reason - every few days there's another horror story.

A few days ago the Advertising Research Foundation - an association serving the industry - announced plans to roll out some privacy guidelines. Obviously, that's done with an intent to head off government action, by suggesting the industry can police itself. If that's true, why hasn't the industry been doing it? Users determined to protect their privacy online are not very likely to be comforted by industry-led platitudes.

THIS IS HARD. Obviously, the technology genie cannot be put back in the bottle. And if the opportunity is there to make money by trampling all over people's privacy, no doubt there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will do it without hesitation, laws or no laws. Onshore or offshore.

Also, as we noted earlier, we're sure there are lots of people who prefer their data to be open and available because it brings their interests right into the palm of their hands.

The key is for that transaction to be voluntary. It should be illegal to sweep up data against the will of the users. Clear and unmistakeable choices - the equivalent of the telephone do-not-call list, if you will - should be available so those users who do not want anybody snooping around their personal data or preferences are empowered. Willful violations of stated privacy intentions should be criminally prosecutable.

The decision to expose personal data to that big anonymous online environment should rest squarely with the user, not with whatever technology outfit has the capability and desire to sweep it up and use it for profits. There's a clear right and wrong factor. And the evidence suggests some technology companies with worldwide name recognition have been on the wrong side of it.

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