Thursday, May 23, 2019

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Congress must act to strengthen consumer data privacy


There’s little doubt that technological advancements have, in many ways, made life easier and more efficient for the American people. We have better and safer modes of transportation, faster ways to communicate and purchase items for ourselves and our families, and more effective tools to monitor and deliver health care. While there are plenty of advantages to these advancements, Americans are finding out that it’s not always risk-free. Access to the latest cutting-edge technology sometimes means trading or sharing personal data, and there are growing concerns over how that data is being used, stored, and even sold.

Let me say at the outset, Americans deserve to have confidence that their information is being used appropriately and with their knowledge or consent, but it’s undeniable that we’re living in an era where people are sharing more information than ever before. I believe it’s now up to Congress to find the right balance of protecting consumer privacy in today’s ever-changing world, which must be a top priority, without passing onerous requirements that hinder innovation.

Think about it for a moment. You wake up in the morning and reach for your phone. You respond to a few text messages and open Facebook to catch up on your newsfeed and post a picture from your kid’s baseball game. Your feet hit the floor, and you tell your Amazon Echo or Google Home device to turn on the lights, adjust the thermostat, and play music. You leave the house, tweet about your upcoming weekend trip, and stop for a quick cup of coffee. You tap and pay with your Apple Watch before connecting to the coffee shop’s free WiFi to email your doctor’s office about an upcoming appointment.

While there’s nothing abnormal about what I just described, simply going through your daily routine can expose multiple layers of your personal data and privacy to legitimate companies, unknown third parties, or even hackers – all without you thinking twice about it. That is why there are serious and urgent concerns about data privacy, and consumers are right to demand action.

As I’ve said before, the question is no longer whether we need a federal law to protect consumers’ privacy. The question now is what shape that law should take, which is why I favor passing bipartisan legislation that sets a single national data privacy standard so companies and consumers don’t have to navigate 50 different sets of rules, a scenario that would be costly and overly burdensome. 

I’m no stranger to the topic of data privacy. In 2017 and 2018, as then-chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, I convened hearings after the massive Equifax data breach and after the political intelligence firm Cambridge Analytica accessed the personal data of millions of unsuspecting Facebook users. The committee discussed the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which has already taken effect, and California’s new privacy-related law that is set to take effect less than one year from now. And, in respective hearings with industry leaders and consumer advocacy groups, we directly evaluated what privacy legislation might actually look like.

Having been a leader in this effort for some time now, I have a good sense of where the momentum is heading, which is why I welcomed an invitation from the current chairman of the Commerce Committee to join a bipartisan working group that is tasked with putting pen to paper on privacy legislation. I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction, and, if it continues, I’m confident Congress could be in a position to consider a bill as soon as this year.

This isn’t the first time Congress has tackled new and emerging privacy concerns. Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Health Insurance Portability Act, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which modernized how financial institutions use consumer data. As technology and info-sharing continue to evolve, so to must our privacy laws. That’s why I’m hopeful we can enact legislation to further strengthen today’s privacy protections so consumers can have greater peace of mind over something as inherently personal as control over their own data.