Why the U.S. needs better privacy laws, now!

Woody Leonhard

Microsoft recently published an open letter to President Obama, condemning some government surveillance techniques and calling for federal data-privacy legislation.

While some industry heavyweights such as Amazon, Twitter, and Google would probably prefer fewer privacy rules, Microsoft weighs in on the side of consumers.

Microsoft replies to a report on privacy

On May 1, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) published its report, “Big Data and Privacy: ATechnological Perspective.” The report’s executive summary begins:

“The ubiquity of computing and electronic communication technologies has led to the exponential growth of data from both digital and analog sources. New technical abilities to gather, analyze, disseminate, and preserve vast quantities of data raise new concerns about the nature of privacy and the means by which individual privacy might be compromised or protected.”

Page after page, the report documents current and potential threats to personal privacy. It also includes some eye-opening examples. A related report (PDF), “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” notes:

“This means ensuring that consumers are meaningfully aware of the spectrum of information collection and reuse as the number of firms that are involved in mediating their consumer experience or collecting information from them multiplies. The data services industry should follow the lead of the online advertising and credit industries and build a common website or online portal that lists companies, describes their data practices, and provides methods for consumers to better control how their information is collected and used or to opt out of certain marketing uses.”

Following the publication of the two reports, the White House issued a formal request for comment. Microsoft, I’m happy to say, came out with both barrels blazing in its Aug. 5 reply (PDF) to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA). As most Windows Secrets readers know, I’ve criticized Microsoft more than once for collecting personal data. But whatever its motivations, Microsoft’s open letter to NTIA director of Internet policy John Morris nicely summarizes the complexities of big data and privacy. The letter’s introduction concludes:

“The United States is well placed to take a leadership position on privacy and big data. But it needs to move quickly. Microsoft encourages the Department of Commerce and the Administration more broadly to push for passage of comprehensive federal privacy legislation based on the principles in the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The rise of big data makes this a pressing issue.”

The need for better privacy legislation is indeed pressing, but it’s unlikely we’ll see any changes soon. As noted in a Feb. 24 letter (PDF) to the president, signed by numerous groups, the framework for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights (PDF) was published over two years ago but remains largely unimplemented. (And information-industry heavyweights seem more interested in protecting their databases from government access than in protecting the public’s privacy.)

You’ll be surprised at what info is collected

We aren’t yet to the point where your toaster reports back to some marketer, revealing exactly how brown you like your morning toast. But just about anything else of an electronic nature is being tracked and linked to your devices’ IP addresses and/or your name.



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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.