Ownership of personal data still appears up for grabs

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[Commentary] Your personal information is yours. Yet that simple idea, which should serve as the basis of all privacy-related laws and regulations in the United States, seems to have eluded those who profess to be the guardians of consumer data.

The White House reiterated its call for greater protection of people's personal info -- two years after proposing a "privacy bill of rights" that went nowhere in Congress.

A new report, written by a group led by White House counselor John Podesta, says that "big data" -- the various entities that benefit from knowing all there is to know about you -- is growing out of control. We're talking about sensors in our homes, cities, wearable devices, that collect and share information about our surroundings, our behavior, our health and our whereabouts.

His report suggests some modest legislative changes, along with "voluntary, enforceable codes of conduct" for businesses and government agencies to keep consumer data from being abused or getting into the wrong hands. I don't know. Seems to me that if sensors everywhere is the problem, voluntary codes of conduct aren't the solution.

Moreover, while the report addresses the ease with which people's information can be collected, crunched and put to use, it fails to adequately convey the sense of violation that comes with businesses and government officials knowing your habits, behavior and activities.

The report says that "we must ensure that effective consumer privacy protections are in place to protect individuals." But it stops short of doing anything about it, such as requiring that private companies disclose to consumers what they know about them. The report also recommends that US privacy safeguards be extended to non-US citizens "because privacy is a worldwide value." This is apparently a bone being thrown to European businesses and governments.

Europeans enjoy far more robust privacy protections than Americans and have long complained that their data are unfairly exploited by US companies. The White House wants Europeans to know that we feel their pain. But that's not good enough. The Europeans have it right: They begin any discussion of data use with an acknowledgment that all people have a right to privacy -- a right that's only implied, not spelled out, in US law.


Ownership of personal data still appears up for grabs