Right now, meticulous details about your life are for sale on the internet. It can be details about your children, your yearly income, your medical conditions, hopes, fears, exercise habits, race, religion, sexuality—all this and more is available, sometimes for fractions of a cent. Companies called data brokers buy the info from companies you interact with, or sometimes collect it themselves. Then they turn around and sell it to anyone who wants a piece. There is no federal law stopping these brokers. In California, though, lawmakers say they want to do something about it.
Up for discussion in the California Senate Tuesday, the Delete Act would introduce a number of provisions that beef up the Golden State’s privacy regulations, some of the strongest in the nation. Among other requirements, the legislation would let you force every data broker to delete the fruits of their data harvest in one simple process.
“The Delete Act is based on a very simple premise: Every Californian should be able to control who has access to their personal information and what they can do with it,” said state Sen. Josh Becker in a press release introducing the Delete Act.
Right now, California law forces data brokers to register with the state. The California Consumer Privacy Act requires most companies to delete the information they’ve harvested about you. But you have to contact each one of them individually. You also have to live in a fantasy world where you know the names of even one percent of the businesses who spy on you for cash. Complying with state regulations is both annoying and expensive for data-hungry businesses, and the industry loves to complain about it. And yet somehow the internet’s worst privacy offenses continue under these supposedly draconian regulations.
“The loophole in the law is big enough to drive a few million stolen identities through and it’s time to close it,” Becker said. The state senator might be right, though his bill doesn’t quite live up to that grandiose privacy promise. It does, however, attempt to solve a bunch of glaring problems.
The biggest proposed change is that the Delete Act would create a system where you can make one single request that forces every data broker in the industry to delete the details they harvest from your life. (Notice how I’m not calling it “your data?” You don’t have all this data. Companies create data about you.)
Right now, data brokers must delete data they collect about you directly if you take time to ask for it. However, they don’t have to delete the data that they get from other companies. The difference, the loophole Becker is talking about, is significant, because that’s where most of their data comes from. Data brokers currently have to register with the state’s Attorney General, but the Delete Act would also force them to disclose information about what kind of data they have.
Becker wraps the Delete Act up with a cute little privacy bow that spells out consequences too, enshrining civil penalties and administrative fines for lawbreaking data bad boys.
The tech business treats information about your life like a barrel of oil, a commodity that can be traded and sold to boost corporate profits. Data-hungry businesses like Google will tell you that’s just how it has to be if we want the internet to be glorious and free. That’s only half true, at best.
In the data broker business in particular, you get nothing out of the exchange. You’ve probably never heard of most of these companies, and they have no direct connection to your life as a consumer. They just help other businesses suck more profits out of you, using information about your life that you don’t even know is on the open market.
“Who cares about privacy,” said a straw man I invented to repeat an argument I’m tired of hearing. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Stop it. Privacy isn’t just about secrets, it’s about power, the power to manipulate, influence, and control.
In every exchange, whether it’s financial, political, or interpersonal, you’re playing a game. The one who has the most information about the other has a huge advantage, and they usually win. It’s easy for companies, politicians, and other monied institutions to learn about you, but it’s very hard for you to learn about them because you don’t have the money or the time.
In the world of the internet, protecting your “privacy” is really about protecting every one of your other rights, whether you’re thinking about yourself as a consumer, a citizen, or just a human being.