Privacy law needs a reboot

The ACLU's Nicole Ozer on location-based services and outdated privacy protections.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, works at the intersection of technology, privacy, and free speech. Ozer will lead a location-based privacy workshop at the upcoming Where 2.0 conference.

Location-based services are raising a host of new privacy concerns, and our legal protections are woefully outdated. Ozer believes that getting good information and making decisions early about privacy issues can help businesses avoid lawsuits, government intervention, and loss of customers.

Our interview follows.

Are there new or unique privacy issues around location technology?

Nicole OzerNicole Ozer: Location-based services are often not just collecting information about who you are but also where you go, who you know, and what you’re doing. A lot of the information that companies are collecting and possibly retaining can end up needing to be disclosed to the government or third parties in ways that consumers didn’t intend. We’re talking about very personal information — everything from whether or not we engage in a political process, if we’re seeing a doctor for a particular reason, to our hobbies, interests, and sexuality.

What’s the current state of location-based legal protections?

Nicole Ozer: The reality is that federal electronic privacy protections haven’t been updated since mobile phones were the size of a brick. We’ve got an electronics communication privacy law that didn’t anticipate location-based services, and the time has really come to update that law. The ACLU is in coalition with other organizations, major telecommunications companies, and location-based services to do that.

Privacy issues have been dominating the headlines this past year, so we do have federal and state legislators looking at these issues. We have the Federal Trade Commission talking about location information in their recent privacy report. We have the courts deciding on a range of location information cases. And we have the public tuning into the privacy issues of Facebook Places and other types of emerging location-based services. There’s a lot of energy around privacy issues right now. Location-based services and location information are very much at the center of those discussions.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

What privacy and legal issues should location-based services be aware of?

Nicole Ozer: Some recent research found that 55% of people already using location-based services are concerned about loss of privacy, and many consumers believe the risks of using location-based services outweigh the benefits right now. So we’ve got a situation where baking in good privacy and creating more customer trust is going to be important for the future of this industry.

As for awareness of specific issues, my Where 2.0 session is going to build off of a number resources that we’ve recently produced at the ACLU:

  • An issue paper called “Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In,” which discusses the current state of legal protections for location information. The paper also identifies ways that consumers, businesses, and policymakers can work together to reinforce some of those privacy protections.
  • An accompanying chart that compares some of the privacy practices and policies of six location-based services.
  • A primer for startups and emerging companies on how to bake privacy into their business development plans. The primer includes case studies of what companies are doing right, and also some pitfalls that companies have experienced along the way.

Do young people care less about privacy than previous generations?

Nicole Ozer: That’s always a very interesting question because a lot of people make that assertion. But the research that’s come out of UC Berkeley and Pennsylvania actually shows the opposite. Young people care quite a lot about privacy and they use settings to a much higher extent than older people.

I think young people have a different concept of privacy. Older people may think about privacy in terms of not sharing, while younger people feel privacy is about control. If you talk to a senior in college, they care very much about controlling their information and making sure that people don’t know information about them that they wouldn’t want them to know.

What can consumers do to improve the privacy of location-based services?

Nicole Ozer: Market pressure can be used to demand good protections for consumer information. There needs to be the right kind of privacy settings and the right kinds of safeguards in place so that people can use new technology and not have to worry that their information is going to be used or accessed in ways that they didn’t intend. Consumers can do a lot by using services that have better protections.

Another important piece is for consumers to pressure legislators to make sure we have laws that keep up with our current technology. People can go to our website at and send a letter to Congress to push for that update.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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