[ISN] Tackling E-Privacy in New York

From: cult hero (jerichoat_private)
Date: Thu Jun 03 1999 - 18:49:50 PDT

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    Tackling E-Privacy in New York
     by Chris Oakes 
    If the federal government won't get tough with the issue of online
    consumer privacy, New York state is determined to do it. 
    The New York State Assembly has passed the part of a legislative package
    designed to erect unprecedented privacy safeguards for consumer
    information in the information age. 
    "The more you learn about computers and email and ordering and passing
    information by email and the Internet, the more people realize that laws
    that protect them in different venues are not in place on the Internet,"
    said Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer. 
    Pheffer, a Democrat from Queens, is head of the Consumer Affairs and
    Protections Committee and author of several measures in the legislative
    package, considered the most comprehensive state action on consumer
    privacy to date. 
    Fourteen bills passed last week are expected to pass committee and reach
    the assembly floor as early as this week. The New York Senate plans to
    present its own privacy package this summer. 
    The broad-ranging measures grew out of the increasing availability of
    personal information. The bills target privacy invasions that the assembly
    said could lead to everything from personal financial loss and damaged
    credit ratings to discrimination. 
    The authors blame the new risks on computers and Internet use, and modern
    technology in general, which threaten privacy with everything from DNA
    advances to the widespread selling and distribution of digital
    "We had to do this because three to five years ago we never thought when
    we passed legislation that this would be something we'd have to deal with
    -- the theft of identity, the selling of email information, the selling of
    digital photo images," Pheffer said. 
    The bills require confidentiality of personal records, prevent the selling
    of email addresses without consent, and prohibit various sophisticated
    telemarketing tricks enabled by modern technology. 
    "We tried to deal with the many issues we and the attorney general have
    received complaints on," Pheffer said. 
    Whereas consumers used to worry about the theft of a credit card or a
    driver license, Pheffer said that the dangers of information theft are
    much greater. 
    "[A thief] can steal everything so that they [can] become you. We've had
    stories where people had automobiles ordered [in their name] and just by
    luck were able to actually stop the delivery of the car. It's much more
    than the stealing of a credit card."
    Identity theft is enabled by electronic access to home addresses, social
    security numbers, and the like, Pheffer said. 
    The new legislation isn't just targeted at data collected by thieves. It
    places companies under scrutiny, too. 
    "As technology provides more efficient ways for commercial enterprises to
    gather and distribute information to consumers, it is vital that the laws
    of the state be modernized to ensure personal privacy," said Attorney
    General Eliot Spitzer in statement. Spitzer is one of the primary authors
    and presenters of the legislative package. 
    Spitzer said that the legislation he authored will strengthen the
    individual's control over personal information. 
    Privacy experts and advocates are enthused. 
    "The New York legislation package is very, very exciting," said Paul
    Schwartz, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School. "I think that this is
    something that is going to shift power to people on the Internet, and
    increase the transparencies of [privacy] policies [online]." 
    "It's not surprising that states are moving when Washington policy
    legislators are largely sitting on their hands," said Marc Rotenberg,
    executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. 
    Existing federal measures to protect consumer privacy are largely directed
    at children. The Federal Trade Commission is charged with protecting
    privacy, but it can only bring limited civil actions. 
    Critics charge that the US Commerce Department has failed to put its teeth
    behind consumer privacy because the Internet industry has successfully
    lobbied the agency that the associated costs of such a move would threaten
    the nation's lead in global e-commerce. 
    In a privacy hearing in Washington last week, Rotenberg said that Congress
    showed itself to be inactive on the issue. 
    "Everyone sat back and said 'Oh, it looks like self-regulation is working
    [and we] don't need to do anything.... By and large, I think the states
    have not been very impressed. So now they're dealing with wide range of
    New York has been a state leader in areas of consumer protection and
    privacy protection, Rotenberg said. 
    But Rotenberg noted that the potential impact of the various bills on
    Internet activity is still unclear. "By and large, the bills really target
    activity off the Internet," Rotenberg said. "[They] treat the Internet as
    one of many privacy issues." 
    Still, one of the measures in the package would add a prohibition of the
    sale, lease, or exchange of any consumer's email address and any other
    personal identifying information that might be obtained online without a
    consumer's consent. 
    Jason Catlett, of the online privacy watchdog group Junkbusters, is
    especially pleased with that measure. 
    But he and others caution that the statewide reach of the legislation is
    one caveat for anyone hoping for far-reaching impact. 
    "Most privacy advocates and experts would prefer to see broad federal
    legislation for the protection of personal data," said Catlett. "But some
    of these piecemeal measures may prevent some very specific injuries that
    consumers are suffering daily." 
    Still, he said that some of the bills have a "private right of action,
    which allows individual consumers to sue companies that invade their
    privacy." That principle has worked well in telemarketing legislation and
    deserves to be extended to personal data protection, he said. 
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