Technology

California Ramps Up Privacy Protection

A new law may spur other states—or the feds—to give you more control over your online data.

Kiplinger’s spoke with Aleecia M. McDonald, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon Univer­sity’s Silicon Valley campus who researches internet privacy and security. Read on for an excerpt from our interview:

California’s new law, which goes into effect in 2020, is supposed to improve online privacy for consumers. What are the key points? Consumers will be able to know more about the information companies have collected about them, request that companies delete that information, and download or transfer the data for their own use. Consumers will also have the right to know when their personal information is being sold to a third party, such as an advertiser, and to opt out of that sale in many cases.

Will opting out be free? Companies can’t refuse service to customers who exercise that right, but they can charge customers the amount of money they would have collected from third parties for selling the data. The law applies to large companies and data brokers, so your local dentist or pizza shop could still sell your unlisted cell-phone number without notice or without allowing you to opt out.

Will other states follow California’s lead? It is entirely plausible that other states will either adopt the California law or modify it slightly. I wouldn’t be surprised if a state such as New York, which has an attorney general’s office with a strong consumer focus, passed a law like this one. And privacy is not a red state or blue state issue, so Montana and Vermont, for example, could easily pass privacy laws in a single year. Facebook and Google have reportedly been meeting with federal policymakers to talk about developing a privacy law. But a federal law may be weaker than state laws and may preempt them.

What changes will consumers see? Some companies may provide notices on their websites to everybody—not just Californians—about the personal information they’re collecting. It’s easier to write the code that way. California will require a button on websites allowing you to opt out of your personal data being sold. Non-Californians may see the button on some sites, too.

How else can consumers protect their privacy online, regardless of where they live? Look for privacy-friendly alternatives to the tools you use. DuckDuckGo is a fantastic search engine that doesn’t collect or share your personal information. The Privacy Badger browser add-on blocks advertisers and other third parties from tracking your activity—and you don’t need a PhD to figure out how to install and use it.

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