- - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Most individuals keep a pretty firm grip on their possessions — the cars, the house and the stuff inside it. They’ve got a fairly accurate grasp of their money, too, by taking a quick scan of their financial assets online. Personal data, though, is another story. The complexion of the information that tech giants glean from surveilling users’ Internet activities is as murky for most Americans as a trek in the woods after dark. Americans urgently need a more effective means of ensuring that their cyber-persona is not being stalked from the digital shadows by buck-raking marketers.

The files on Americans are extra juicy, digitally speaking, within the archives of Facebook, the social media home of around 170 million U.S. citizens, not to mention 2.4 billion around the world. The likes and dislikes, the tendencies and peculiarities, the friends and unfriends all pour into personal profiles and are sold to advertisers, netting $55.8 billion in 2018. The practice of helping businesses furtively target consumers also earned Facebook a record $5 billion penalty, imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in July, for violating a 2012 order meant to preserve consumers’ ability to control the privacy of their personal data.

The FTC tells Americans they can rest assured now that their privacy is safe: “The magnitude of the $5 billion penalty and sweeping conduct relief are unprecedented in the history of the FTC,” said commission Chairman Joe Simons in a recent statement. “The relief is designed not only to punish future violations but, more importantly, to change Facebook’s entire privacy culture to decrease the likelihood of continued violations. The Commission takes consumer privacy seriously, and will enforce FTC orders to the fullest extent of the law.”

Then users learned last week that creepy Facebook contractors have had an ear pressed to the company’s Messenger app, listening to and transcribing users’ unguarded voice chats, according to Consumer Reports. Lest they feel unfairly singled out by Facebook, consumers should know that Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have also recorded the personal conversations of those who utilize their virtual assistants.

For electronic leviathans like Facebook, which rakes in more annual revenue than 60 percent of the world’s nations, billions in fines may simply add up to the cost of doing business. The only genuine assurance of confidentiality, it seems, is logging off and shutting up.

Some privacy experts say more robust enforcement of existing rules requires the creation of a new federal posse to ride herd over the cyber-peepers. “The United States confronts a crisis,” says the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington public interest research center. “Digital giants invade our private lives, spy on our families, and gather our most intimate facts, on a mass scale, for profit. The FTC has failed to protect consumers. The system is broken. A Data Protection Agency is needed now.”

Federal agencies have a way of growing into bureaucratic leviathans, though, as pointless as a self-licking ice cream cone or as expendable as the National Technical Information Service. The obscure service was created during the 1950s to “provide innovative data services to federal agencies,” but in the digital age, 95 percent of its collection of documents can be found on Google, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Rather than erect another monument to bureaucratic busywork, data protection may be better handled through crystal-clearly defined legislation that gives consumers the right to opt in or opt out of the use of their personal data for commercial purposes. California has passed a fortified consumer privacy act, due to take effect Jan. 1, which is meant to give residents the right to see their personal data, to say no to its sale or disclosure, and to request that a business delete their information. Other states that have followed suit include Texas, Nevada and Washington.

Sensing the building headwinds, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has practically begged Congress to replace an enlarging patchwork of state requirements with regulations that apply uniformly from coast to coast.

In an era when political guerrilla warfare rages across Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to come together and hammer out a comprehensive law preserving Americans’ right to decide who gets to eyeball their unique digital persona and who doesn’t. Mandating that businesses include on their homepages a prominent box that reads, “Do you grant us permission to market your personal data?” — followed by large “yes” and “no” buttons — would be a good start.

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