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Privacy advocates find Obama proposal lacking

Grant Gross | March 4, 2015
A consumer privacy proposal from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration gives people too little control over their personal data and companies too much latitude to use that information, a coalition of 14 privacy and digital rights groups said.

A consumer privacy proposal from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration gives people too little control over their personal data and companies too much latitude to use that information, a coalition of 14 privacy and digital rights groups said.

The Obama administration's consumer privacy bill of rights, released late Friday, allows companies holding personal data to determine whether consumers should be able to demand changes to the information, the groups said in a letter to Obama, sent Tuesday.

The White House proposal contains several "shortcomings," said the groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Watchdog, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Among the problems: The proposal appears to allow companies holding personal data to limit consumer control over it based on the companies' assessment of risk to personal privacy or their decision that they hold the data in a manner that is "reasonable in light of context," according to its text.

The proposal seems to be designed to give consumers "minimal control" based on what data companies think they should hold, said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, one of the groups signing onto the letter. "It just doesn't seem to be pro-consumer."

The proposal would allow industries to propose their own privacy codes of conduct, with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission getting 90 to 120 days to review those codes before they go into effect. With the FTC potentially getting hundreds of codes of conduct to review, the White House proposal fails to give the agency adequate resources to deal with the new workload, the groups said.

"The Obama privacy bill is a digital house of cards — a political version of a magician's trick," Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said by email. "It appears to give consumers control. But the crux of the bill is that the very companies that now freely collect all our data get to set all the new rules, through so-called codes of conduct."

The FTC isn't given clear authority to critically review the proposed codes, Chester added. "How can it conduct an effective analysis, place the issue for public comment, and arrive at a reasonable decision with an ever-beating, 90-day alarm clock aimed at it?" he said.

Representatives of the White House didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter. The White House, on Friday, said the proposal was intended to give consumers more control over their personal information.

The proposal would require U.S. businesses and nonprofits that collect personal data to describe their privacy and security practices and give consumers control over their personal information in some cases.

 

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