Home Law OPINION: Ohioans need stricter data privacy laws

OPINION: Ohioans need stricter data privacy laws

11 min read

Opinion Editor Tim Zelina argues if Ohio adopts stronger data privacy laws, it could help trigger a nationwide movement against data mining.

Social media giants have been in hot water recently after a series of scandals related to the 2016 election. Facebook’s stock plummeted as founder Mark Zuckerberg and CEO Sheryl Sandberg have been grilled by senators over the company’s knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining. Twitter has been criticized for not acting harshly enough to stop the antics of bot accounts from influencing public opinion.

These controversies have far wider ranging consequences than the legal concerns about the election of Trump. The story being unveiled here should be a major concern to anyone who has or currently uses the internet, which is just about anyone.

Your data is being used in ways you never would have imagined when you first agreed to a website’s terms of service, and you have no legal recourse against it under current laws. The state of Ohio needs to institute regulations to protect its citizens against the irresponsible actions of Silicon Valley.

Just what is being done with your data? Twitter’s bots do more than spam hashtags and automate responses to tweets. Shrewd botnet operators make use of advanced data analytics to discover who on Twitter might respond best to their propaganda. These users are then targeted by bot accounts who will like, share and follow their tweets. Have you ever found yourself randomly followed by a political account that disappears days later? It’s likely a bot.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal represented something far more disconcerting. Sites like Facebook and Google plant what are essentially digital trackers on you. No matter what website you’re on, they’re collecting information from it. Even traditional methods like clearing cookies or going into private browsing mode don’t actually seem to stop this data collection.

But their tracking isn’t just limited to your websites. Using the location of the cell phone in your pocket, they’re able to determine what stores you go to, what highway billboards you’ve driven past, what you’re most likely to be doing on a Saturday night. It’s likely Google knows more about you and your interests than some of your friends do.

With this data about you that Facebook and other seemingly free-to-use sites gather and sell as their commodity, seedy companies like Cambridge Analytica are able to craft disturbingly accurate profiles of what were ostensibly anonymous users.

Cambridge Analytica gathered your home address, your Google searches (even the ones in incognito mode), what links you hover your mouse over, just about anything you did on the internet. Using these individual tidbits of information, they were, with some 90% accuracy, able to predict information about you. They could guess what movies you’d watch, what race, gender and sexuality you are, and, with only slightly less accuracy, even information like what you do for a living and how much you make a year.

What they were best at, though, was determining where you align on the political spectrum. They learned which individual internet users to target with vitriolic slander, which users would respond better to more positive ads, and which users were a waste of time to even bother advertising to. While Hillary Clinton spent millions on shot-in-the-dark television ads, the Trump campaign was able to advertise to individual voters for only pennies apiece.

Facebook claims they never intended for Cambridge Analytica to have such wide access to every facet of your internet presence. The more violating data-gathering was intended for researchers, not private companies. It was one malignant person who transferred this data to Cambridge Analytica, which was strictly against Facebook’s rules.

Facebook’s plan for protecting your data is instituting an honor system, where if researchers promise not to use the vast trove of your personal data for profit or political purposes, they can go wild with what they download and collect. And if they break this rule? A stern finger wagging from Facebook.

So not only is it entirely legal for Facebook to harvest your data across multiple platforms, it’s also legal for Cambridge Analytica to essentially steal this data. The worst they have to deal with is Facebook banning them from using it in the future, but their job is done, and the firm has since closed.

In the European Union, this behavior would have earned billions in fines, and possibly even legal action against Facebook’s executives. In 2016, the E.U. passed the sweeping General Data Protection Regulation, a massive set of laws that strictly regulates how firms like Facebook and Google use your data.

In the United States, the only state with something remotely similar is California. Activist Alastair Mactaggart made it his personal mission to stop data miners from harvesting our data. His philosophy was that if a state as populous and influential as California passed a groundbreaking data privacy law, it would force the tech companies to adapt, since losing such a major market would be devastating.

Mactaggart originally envisioned the project as a relatively straightforward one. It turned into a nightmare. Silicon Valley’s legions of lawyers and lobbyists used their influence in the state to convince Democrats and Republicans alike to oppose any sweeping change. After countless rounds of intense negotiations and a threat by Mactaggart to try his chances with a state initiative, California finally passed a watered down data-protection bill.

While disappointing, it is at least a step in the right direction. It’s now time to expand on the momentum Mactaggart and the controversies that concerned him have triggered. Ohio needs to become the next state to stand up to Silicon Valley’s data mining.

Our state may not be known for taking a visionary stance on any particular issue, but the protection of data privacy enjoys bipartisan support rivaled by very few other issues. With the right pressure from the voters, Ohio could help trigger a nation-wide avalanche of data regulation.

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One Comment

  1. Ryan S

    September 24, 2018 at 3:04 AM

    Excellent article, Tim. You tackled an important issue with clear, well-reasoned argumentation; keep up the good work!


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