The European Union (EU) has adopted stringent privacy-protection laws that allow individuals to actually really truly control and even delete information about them stored in vast private and governmental computer databanks.
Now some citizens and leaders in the United States, the bastion of personal freedom historically, would like to adopt similar laws to curtail what has been called a "Wild West" of unregulated anarchy.
Former state Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, currently a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, has been one of those leaders. In July 2011, he sponsored a bill to provide what was termed "21st century privacy protections" to library users, including use of internet communications on library computers, and in November 2011, he spearheaded a resolution recognizing the 10th anniversary of the California Office of Privacy Protection.
Apple's CEO Tim Cook, in a break from other "Big Tech" leaders, actively promoted better privacy protections on a recent episode of "60 Minutes," which revealed how vast and insidious computer-assisted monitoring has become with the rise of tech-based huge firms such as Facebook and Google.
"Our own information from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponized against us with military efficiency. It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow your lead," Cook said of the EU laws.
The program also contained interviews with officials from Facebook, Google and others accused of rampant violations of privacy — the secretive dark side of Silicon Valley high-tech innovations.
"A consensus is developing that something has to change and once again the impetus is coming from Europe which is becoming the world's leader in internet privacy and data protection," Steve Kroft reported, citing "a tough new law that has Silicon Valley scrambling to comply, and pressuring lawmakers here to do something about protecting your data." The program, complete with a written transcript, is at bit.ly/PrivacyDebate.
"Is 2013 the year that should be engraved on the tombstone of privacy?" was the lead question in a Jan. 3, 2014, "Silicon Beat" report by Levi Sumagaysay on the implications of Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA privacy-related tracking of individual's electronic communications. "Can some semblance of privacy be reclaimed in 2014, or is it forever lost?" he asked. This is not the first, or the last, time that question will be raised.
But another question is vitally important to ask also: Why isn't there more public outrage and resistance about the corporate and government "harvesting" of personal data?
One reason is that people are just so busy with day-to-day living there is an exhaustion barrier. Another is that individuals feel there's not much they can do about it anyway — the so-called grain-of-sand-on-a-beach "What can I do?" barrier.
There are personal steps one can take, such as encryption programs. But those tend to be cumbersome or at least complicated, and take time in a rushed era. Most states have laws against "cyberstalking."
But there are regular revelations about new technology, such as digital "facial recognition" programs that may be implemented to speed check-ins at airports and, almost certainly, numerous other applications not too far down the road.
My personal interest in privacy protection dates back to 1991, when my then-housemate Jim Warren of Woodside spearheaded the so-called "First Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy."
At his request, I handled media relations for what became a nationally publicized conference. We made it a point to encourage interaction between attendees and participants, and those involved ranged from legal and illegal hackers to representatives of the CIA and Secret Service. There were privacy advocates and libertarians and law-enforcement people attending.
One illegal hacker (some called those "crackers") introduced Warren and me to "my arresting officer and prosecuting attorney" as we headed to lunch.
That was in 1991, approaching three decades ago!
So another question I have is why, despite the good efforts that have been made in California and elsewhere, hasn't more been done in the privacy-protection arena?
Heavy lobbying by heavy hitters such as Facebook and Google and others has been cited to explain the studied silence and paralysis on the topic nationally and at state levels.
In Europe, the EU coalition of multiple nations, were substantially more immune to the lobbying efforts of the big-tech firms and more strongly aware perhaps of the evils that can happen with totalitarian regimes with universal information about individuals.
That all has a George Orwell "1980" ring to it, but 1980 was a long time ago technologically speaking, and checking in to Big Government once a day is nothing compared to being tracked everywhere you go with your Android smartphone.
At the 1991 CFP1 conference, I made the comment that I wasn't so much concerned with "Big Brother" as "with the 10,000 Little Big Brothers" out there: the private companies that increasingly can (and will) mine your information to manipulate you and your family members and sell you anything from soap to political candidates.
I don't think I could say that about Big Brother today, post-Snowden's revelations about the vast extent of governmental secret-spying programs.
Now the real challenge is to move past the years of talk about protecting privacy and see if there's a constituency out there that will demand that real, effective action be taken.
Americans may hate to admit that someone else might be ahead of them in terms of innovation or action on any subject.
But in this case, perhaps the fledgling discussion relating to enacting EU-stule laws on protection — actually meaning "restoring" protections — on privacy may become on of the political hot topics of the next year or two.
Even, or especially, in influential Silicon Valley and the Palo Alto/Stanford University axis.
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