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Activist Aims To Strengthen California's Consumer Privacy Act

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been about a month now since California rolled out the toughest consumer data privacy law in the country. But already, there is talk of another law from the same guy who launched the first one. Rachael Myrow from member station KQED reports that there is a dispute about whether this latest bid might actually weaken the current law.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: To understand data privacy, Alastair Mactaggart of Oakland, Calif., wants you to imagine for half a minute that you're living with him and it's not going well.

ALASTAIR MACTAGGART: If you and I are partners and we're both wearing a Fitbit, that Fitbit knows everything about our lives - everything.

MYROW: Like if you two start sleeping in the same room or two different rooms.

MACTAGGART: It knows before anybody else - the technology. And it knows. And that's really valuable.

MYROW: Valuable because that's information that can be sold on to advertisers - everybody from linen companies and divorce attorneys that might monetize the information to data brokers who just want the information. To be fair, Fitbit is one of many companies collecting and sharing data we presume is private or should be. But unlike most of us, Mactaggart had the money to launch a political and then a legal conversation in California about surveillance-based advertising.

MACTAGGART: Even two years ago, the consumer consciousness around privacy wasn't what it is now. Now people are, like - are kind of mad.

MYROW: Now, he says, he has an opportunity to take the toughest data privacy law in the nation and make it even tougher. So, for instance, his new initiative would create a new regulatory agency in California. But a number of other data privacy advocates say the fine print includes giveaways to business lobbyists. Mary Stone Ross is with the Electronic Information Privacy Center (ph) in D.C. now, but she co-authored the earlier initiative.

MARY STONE ROSS: So, for example, there's this definition of de-identified information. Sounds boring, but it's actually a really big deal because by definition, de-identified information is not personal information. And so if that definition is weakened, then it weakens the scope of the entire law. So sure enough, in this new initiative is a weakened definition of de-identified.

MYROW: Why does she care so much if she's moved to Washington, D.C.? Because in the absence of federal data privacy law, other states are looking to California.

ROSS: There's legislation that's going to be introduced in Florida and Colorado, potentially in New York.

JIM HALPERT: This is a sea change in regulation of privacy in the U.S.

MYROW: Jim Halpert is a corporate attorney with DLA Piper who advises companies about data privacy. He essentially backs up Ross' read from the other side of the negotiating table.

HALPERT: In the end of the day, the way I view the initiative is creating new rights without a legislative process, but then addressing some of the practical compliance issues that drove efforts to amend the law by the business community in 2019.

MYROW: That explains why few data privacy advocates expect Silicon Valley to lobby against the new initiative. They're getting what they want. And given growing public concerns about data privacy, people on both sides expect voters to find the basic idea of the California Privacy Rights Act of 2020 appealing.

For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in San Jose.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "PARANOID ANDROID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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