Why Colorado needs to lay the right foundation to protect our data and privacy

The Colorado legislature is considering a bill, SB21-190, titled Protect Personal Data Privacy. Despite its title, it doesn’t build the right foundation for consumers to keep their data private.

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Allison Conwell
Advocate

Author: Allison Conwell

Advocate

Started on staff: 2017
A.B., Princeton University

Allison builds political support around issues impacting all Coloradans. Allison has authored two reports on electronic waste and repair, which have earned coverage from outlets across the country. Allison lives in Denver, where she enjoys taking long walks and reading.

If you’re like me, you’ve likely been on the internet for decades. 

As a Millennial, I’ve been using the internet since elementary school. I learned how to type in the computer lab and played on websites that had games featuring my favorite TV show characters. 

I’ve had a smartphone since high school and have downloaded and deleted many apps. I’ve also shopped online and even signed up for different brands’ rewards programs.

And through all those years and devices and websites and apps, my data has been tracked, sold and shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of parties since my first log-in. 

So has yours. 

With all of the tracking, selling and sharing, I would say that we don’t have data privacy - the ability to determine which of your data can be collected; your ability to know where your data goes; and your ability to stop companies from collecting and sharing your data.

Credit: CoPIRG, “2019 Fight Over Data Privacy Rights Heating Up Already.”

 

We experience a lack of data privacy in a lot of ways. One way that is pretty common and easy to see is getting a targeted ad. 

For example, last year I went to the website of one of my favorite clothing brands to search for a swimsuit. I found one but decided not to buy it. I closed the window, opened a separate window and checked my email. My inbox webpage contains ads on the sidebars, and immediately I saw an ad for the exact swimsuit I was looking at in the other window that I just closed - it’s almost like they can read my mind! But really my data was shared so I could be personally marketed to, whether I wanted to be or not.

But there are more sinister ways you can experience a lack of data privacy, like having your data and identity stolen in a data breach because one of the many entities that got your data without your knowledge got hacked. 

The more your data is tracked, sold and shared, the more likely your data will be stolen in a data breach as hacks become more common. Last year alone, there were 1,001 data breaches in the United States, affecting over 155 million Americans. One such breach was of bookseller Barnes and Noble. According to an email I got from the company after the breach, my transaction history and email were exposed (though thankfully in this case my financial information was not).

Credit: Statista, “Annual number of data breaches and exposed records in the United States from 2005 to 2020 (in millions)”

 

Our personal data is important and should stay private. We shouldn’t have to risk our personal information being stolen because we want to visit a website or sign up for a rewards program. We should be able to control where our data goes and who has access to it. We need data privacy.

 

Two different data privacy paths to go down but only one right path

Lawmakers at the state and federal level should be applauded for considering data privacy policies, but in the rush to pass something, we risk going down the wrong path and making true data privacy even harder. 

On a federal level since 2019, the adtech industry, which represents the companies that want us to have as little control as possible over our own data, has been lobbying for a weak federal data privacy law

On a state level, California and Virginia have already passed different versions of data privacy laws. Other states, like here in Colorado and New York, are considering them as I write this. 

Ultimately, there are two paths you can take to enact a data privacy law: 

  1. You can enshrine the current system where companies automatically get access to your data and consumers must play an endless game of whack-a-mole trying to identify and stop data collecting and sharing using an “opt-out”-based law.
  2. You can put people at the center of the policy and pass a law that requires companies to ask you upfront if they can track, sell and share your data using an “opt-in” law. This also gives you more control over what and how much to share. 

An “opt-in” law and system is much better for consumers and takes us down the right path that builds the right foundation for ultimate data privacy, but unfortunately, it is the path less traveled by states and the federal government. 

Here in Colorado, our legislature is considering an “opt-out” bill, meaning that companies get access to our personal data unless we tell them to stop. Furthermore, the bill, SB21-190 titled Protect Personal Data Privacy, only lets consumers opt-out of data collection, tracking, selling and sharing for a few purposes. 

This means that few things will actually change around data privacy in Colorado. We’re enshrining the wrong foundation into law, and the bill will make future data privacy gains harder to achieve.

Looking at who’s in support of this bill reinforces that we’re headed down the wrong path. The entities that benefit from the collection and sale of our personal data, and ones that aren’t good at keeping our data safe, support this bill according to a review of Colorado’s lobby disclosure database

One part of the bill says companies should have a “clear and conspicuous” way to let you know how to opt-out of getting your data collected. That sounds nice. But in practice, the most clear and conspicuous way to ensure people know what’s being collected and how it’s being used is an opt-in system in which we get to choose up front.  

Despite Colorado going down the wrong path other states are considering legislation that will center the consumer and data privacy. 

New York is considering a data privacy bill that would require companies to get consumers to opt-in to having their data collected, tracked, sold and shared. And their bill would allow consumers to sue companies that collect their data if they don’t want their data collected. This bill is the right path to take and lays a much stronger foundation for data privacy.

There’s a sense of urgency that data privacy needs to be addressed right now, and that passing a law, no matter how good or bad it is, is better than leaving the situation alone. I often agree and advocate for that incremental approach. But not here.  

Although it may seem like passing a bill is better than passing no bill, this bill is not a step forward. We are digging a deeper hole and making it harder to tackle this issue in the future. There is a better way. 

We may not have the time to pass the right bill this legislative session in Colorado. But waiting to pass the right bill will be worth it. We need to lay the right foundation for data privacy in Colorado.

Allison Conwell
Advocate

Author: Allison Conwell

Advocate

Started on staff: 2017
A.B., Princeton University

Allison builds political support around issues impacting all Coloradans. Allison has authored two reports on electronic waste and repair, which have earned coverage from outlets across the country. Allison lives in Denver, where she enjoys taking long walks and reading.