State privacy policies should prompt Congress for federal regulation

As Congress continues to neglect any form of online privacy legislation, 10 state legislatures have addressed the issue themselves, passing over two dozen laws in the past year restricting the collection of personal data by federal agencies and private businesses. These laws are a step in the right direction for Internet privacy, but remind us that more sweeping reform from Washington, D.C. is needed.

The laws have been diverse, but like-minded. California has given kids the right to delete existing posts on social media. Oklahoma has provided students with strict privacy protection. Texas has proposed warrants be required for email searches. All of these efforts, however, are less comprehensive than the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which was introduced by the White House last year but that Congress has yet to discuss.

The state measures are largely symbolic because federal laws supercede state laws. The preemptive federal law at issue is the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which broadened government authority for surveillance on its own citizens to strengthen national security against terrorism. In particular, third parties such as Internet service providers and tech giants are obliged under Section 215 to hand over sensitive records of their customers when requested by the FBI.

Nevertheless, recent efforts by states to curb surveillance challenge the constitutionality of the act itself. Although the law conditions the conduct of investigations to be in accordance with “activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution,” it gives authorities unchecked power with significant potential for abuse.

Congress has a responsibility to uphold individual privacy, but it is apparent with the passing of the Patriot Act and the failure to meaningfully amend it that we cannot depend on  lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to protect our personal liberties. In light of recent revelations about the NSA’s infringements of important civil rights, it is disappointing yet unsurprising that Congress has not passed any legislation restoring the protection of personal rights to privacy. These state measures, while small steps, are more than Congress has done to ensure this protection. Perhaps state action will put pressure on the federal government to finally address needless provisions that have not safeguarded national security but have only denied personal freedoms.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]

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