I’ve written before about the balance privacy laws need to take with respect to the data aggregation made possible by the digital age. When it comes to data aggregated or accessed by the government, on that front law and policy should provide some firm checks to ensure that such aggregation or access does not violate people’s Fourth Amendment right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Such limitations don’t forever hobble legitimate investigations of wrongdoing; they simply require adequate probable cause before the digital records of people’s lives be exposed to police scrutiny. You do not need to have something to hide in order not to want that.
But all too often when we demand that government better protect privacy it’s not because we want the government to; on the contrary, we want it to force private parties to. Which isn’t to say that there is no room for concern when private parties aggregate personal data. Such aggregations can easily be abused, either by private parties or by the government itself (which tends to have all too easy access to it). But as this recent article in the New York Times suggests, a better way to construct the regulation might be to focus less on how private parties collect the data and more on the subsequent access to and use of the data once collected, since that is generally from where any possible harm could flow. The problem with privacy regulation that is too heavy-handed in how it allows technology to interact with data is that these regulations can choke further innovation, often undesirably. As a potential example, although mere speculation, this article suggests that Google discontinued its support for its popular Google Reader product due to the burdens of compliance with myriad privacy regulations. Assuming this suspicion is true — but even if it’s not — while perhaps some of this regulation vindicates important policy values, it is fair to question whether it does so in a sufficiently nuanced way so that it doesn’t provide a disincentive for innovators to develop and support new products and technologies. If such regulation is having that chilling effect, we may reasonably want to question whether these enforcement mechanisms have gone too far.
Meanwhile public outcry has largely been ignoring much more obvious and dangerous incursions into their privacy rights done by government actors, a notable example of which will be discussed in the following post.