Today’s technology provides astounding information at the swipe of a finger.
In the market for a car? You can search dozens of dealerships at once for the paint color and price you like best. Google Maps will give you detailed directions to the dealership in a strange town. Yelp will inform you of the neighborhood’s favorite spot for lunch. Facebook will connect you to the old friend who happens to be in town the same day. Accuweather will give you the hour-by-hour forecast so you know to leave early and avoid the rainstorm.
But information flows both ways. The networks that feed us so much vital information are also watching us, tracking where we go, what we buy, who we see and what we eat. Those digital profiles are then fed into ever more sophisticated databases that are bought and sold like cattle at the auction yard. Your search history, reading habits, shopping profile – they’re all for sale to the right bidder.
In some respects, this isn’t new or even a threat. Mailing lists have been around for decades – which is why one subscription to a dog magazine brings five catalogs for collars, chew toys and veterinary services. But the sheer volume of data being compiled about everyone one of us is unprecedented.
And nobody much cares whether the world knows you’re a dog lover. But maybe instead you searched the web for information about how to help a severely depressed teenager. Or checked prices for diabetic socks and blood glucose monitors. Or bought a handgun and ammunition. Or researched bankruptcy.
Our digital lives can reflect our innermost personal lives, and the privacy implications of their becoming new data points in freely traded customer profiles are frightening. Forget the retailer that wants to sell you something. Think about the stalker that wants to hurt you. Or the hacking ring that wants to steal your identity and drain your bank account.
Technological innovation propels California’s economy. It has made life richer and more convenient for everyone. At the same time, our state has a long tradition of protecting citizens’ privacy – which the California Constitution declares an “inalienable right.”
The growing tension between our economic trends and our legal tradition is what led the California Assembly to create a new Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection. I have the honor of serving as one of the founding members.
I am not remotely against technology, which isn’t just for techies. From the seat of a tractor out in the field, a farmer like me can check hay prices, order seed, get updated soil temperature and moisture readings, and arrange a contract to plow and plant the neighbor’s field – all while the GPS-enabled controls do most of the driving. And that’s using last season’s gadgets.
But in this world of social media, ever-present surveillance cameras, location-based advertising, smart electricity meters and thermostats, and drone aircraft, the threats to our privacy have multiplied far faster than the law can keep up.
We can’t and shouldn’t stop technology’s evolution, but it’s past time the Legislature takes a hard look at what it will take to ensure we don’t discard our treasured rights like last year’s cell phone.