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Internet privacy laws lacking in US

Published: Monday, April 23, 2012

Updated: Monday, April 23, 2012 00:04

It tracks every click, browse and purchase. The only trace of evidence left behind is a cookie, and not the kind your grandmother bakes.

The Internet allows users to connect across continents, network with old friends and access information in seconds. It also anonymously keeps tabs on the world’s Internet use.

More than half of the Internet’s top sites use “Flash cookies” to track site visits and record every article read, advertisement viewed and shopping cart created, according to a study by the University of California, Berkeley. Flash cookies must be manually deleted through an online settings manager tool on Adobe’s website, and Internet users might not realize that their personal information is constantly collected and stored.

Google is being fined for impeding a U.S. Federal Communications Committee (FCC) investigation of the Street View project, which collected street images and map coordinates from around the world using Google Street View cars. Yet Google also collected what is commonly called payload data, which is a person’s Internet usage history, from unsecured wireless networks.

According to the FCC report, Google collected personal emails detailing married people attempting to cheat on their spouses, email addresses, passwords, chat conversations and 360-degree images that peered into restaurants and homes.

Google took two years to respond to a complaint filed by the FCC, yet the company’s response was simply, “It was a mistake.”

Google faces a $25,000 fine — an insignificant sum compared to the $2.89 billion the company netted in the first quarter of 2012, according to Google’s financial summary.

The laws on Internet privacy are few and far between. Generally, Internet giants can use data in the U.S. for business purposes without consumer consent or knowledge.

It is not unlawful to intercept unencrypted communication under the Wiretap Act, which broadly regulates the collection of data from wire and electronic sources and prevents third parties from installing electronic “sniffers” that read Internet traffic.

The Communications Act of 1934, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, put the FCC in charge of regulating broadcast and telephone communications. In 1996, it was amended by the Telecommunications Act, adding the Internet to the list. This act favors deregulation of the Internet.

Google repeatedly and willfully failed to comply with the FCC and did not provide a clear answer as to how they mistakenly collected payload data. The company is now liable to the federal government for forfeiture penalty, but not for all the personal information it collected, according to the FCC report.

Law and technology experts at UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania surveyed Americans on their privacy views and found that 86 percent of young adults don’t want tailored online advertising if it is a result of being anonymously followed on websites. Americans mistakenly believe there are government laws prohibiting the sale of data on them, according to the study.

The Internet will continue to be a catch-22 until more privacy laws are passed or individual privacy becomes completely irrelevant to society.

Courtney L’Ecuyer is a student at the University of Arizona.

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