By David Hoffman, Associate General Counsel and Global Privacy Officer
If you need to be convinced that privacy still matters in the age of COVID-19, the podcast series No Place to Hide will convince you. In the first three episodes, hosted by Bob Sullivan and Alia Tavakolian, you’ll hear compelling evidence of the insidious role data brokers play in our economy, through true stories and others that could easily be true. Each episode features insights from world-renowned privacy experts like former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Christine Varney and former senior advisor on privacy to President Obama Marc Groman.
In a world where individual states are now considering creating their own COVID-19 contact tracing applications, which may be integrated with feeds from data brokers, this issue is of critical importance. How do we make certain these applications are not used for purposes other than preventing the spread of the virus? The podcast series makes clear why this is such a difficult problem.
In episode one, data and privacy expert Larry Ponemon, the chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, explains that based on his research, people are naturally averse to taking the necessary steps required to protect their privacy. “The privacy paradox is that good people will say they care about their privacy, but there is evidence to suggest that they do not do anything to protect their personal information,” said Ponemon. Without strong and easily understood privacy laws, companies remain free to take advantage of this ‘privacy paradox.’
In episode two, Christine Varney expands on problems associated with our lack of privacy laws by describing how, in the 1990s, companies were given the freedom to collect and use data over the internet with only very light restrictions. She goes on to say that companies avoided even those modest controls by writing complex privacy policies that made it nearly impossible for non-lawyers to understand how the companies would use the data. “The companies became so concerned with their legal liability that they wrote these 23, 28, 42-page privacy disclosures that no one can understand,” Varney says.
Episodes four, five and six recount the dramatized story of a young mother and her son on the run from an abusive husband/father. He’s been given their personal information by a data broker, and he’s always just one step behind them because of all the tracking information available to him. The fictionalized story is rooted in reality and based on countless interviews with survivors of domestic violence, for whom data privacy is a matter of life and death.
In episode four, Marc Groman explains how bad actors like the abusive husband and father from our story are able to track their victims through GPS data from navigation apps. Groman says that through our location data, people can predict our every movement:
If you have my precise location over, say, a couple of weeks, you can essentially draw highly sensitive inferences about my entire life. You will understand my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my health issues potentially, and by the way, it is so precise now, we know that you aren’t just in a hospital; if you are in a 12-story building, we know what floor you are on in the hospital.
Finally, episode six recaps some of the ways the United States is behind many other countries in tackling privacy abuses and how the world might look in 2030 if the U.S. does not improve its privacy laws. Groman describes the lack of U.S. credibility regarding data privacy laws on the global stage in sobering terms:
We have just forfeited the leadership role on this issue across the entire world…The whole world is looking to Europe and we have no cred on any global stage on this topic, so we must have an omnibus privacy law.
This is a hard truth we have recognized at Intel for over 10 years, and it is why we are advocating for a strong, comprehensive U.S. federal privacy law.
It’s one thing to read about privacy violations, but it’s quite another to hear them enacted in real situations. No Place to Hide gives you a first-hand look at individuals whose lives are upended by the lack of privacy current U.S. laws allow. I am confident that, when you listen to these podcasts, you’ll agree we should all advocate for passage of a strong federal privacy law that puts people first.