States introduce flurry of privacy legislation, filling void left by Congress

Bipartisan legislation introduced in 16 states and the District of Columbia aims at offering privacy protections where Congress has not.
Bipartisan legislation introduced in 16 states and the District of Columbia aims at offering privacy protections where Congress has not.

As the gridlock in Congress continues to thwart national privacy legislation, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have stepped up to fill the void in privacy protection with the introduction today of more than 30 bipartisan privacy-related bills that cover everything from safeguarding to putting parameters on the use of location data.

“Congress has ground to a gridlock and it is salient that states are stepping up,” said Anthony Romero, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a phone call with members of the press prior to prior to sponsors in various jurisdictions unveiling their proposed legislation. He noted that there has been no substantive change to national privacy legislation since the passage of the Electronic Communications Protection Act (ECPA) in the 1980s. “State legislators and governors are tired of waiting for Congress,” he said, adding that concerns over privacy cross party lines.

The blizzard of bills [see an interactive map here] are supported by all factions from “Tea Party Patriots to Occupy groups,” Michael Boldin, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Tenth Amendment Group, said during the call. “There is no issue we work on outside of privacy that generates this kind of Left-Right support.”

The states participating in the Wednesday legislative action – Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia — are home to about 100 million citizens.

The legislative initiatives range from student data privacy protections in  Alabama and Minnesota to location tracking and employee data privacy safeguards in Michigan.

“Privacy is paramount,” said Michigan State Rep. Peter Lucido (R), one of the sponsors of legislation in his state and a proponent of giving consumers control over their personal information by requiring informed consent before a company can used the data for other purposes than originally collected. Organizations, particularly financial institutions, are “sharing private information on customers without the customers knowing,” said Lucido, who explained that information moves rapidly and by pushing a button users “are exploding data” out into the universe.

Lucido chastised the federal government for not taking the lead on privacy, but said he still hopes for a day when all of the state laws are rounded up into federal legislation. Until then, consumers can't wait. “I believe the time is now rather than later when we're hurt, injured or bruised,” the state legislator said.

Privacy advocates remained skeptical that national legislation would be coming down the pike any time soon since the ACLU and others have been working on updating ECPA “for literally years,” said Romero, who contended the federal government “has been missing in action” and “when Congress doesn't act states feel the pressure to fill the void.”

A bicameral, bipartisan bill, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015 (ECPA),was presented to the Senate early last year to modernize U.S. electronic privacy laws and offer protection from warrantless searches. “In the nearly three decades since ECPA became law, technology has advanced rapidly and beyond the imagination of anyone living in 1986,” Rep. Mike Lee, (R-Utah),  said at the time. “The prevalence of email and the low cost of electronic data storage have made what were once robust protections insufficient to ensure that citizens' Fourth Amendment rights are adequately protected.”

Boldin compared Wednesday's tidal wave of actions on privacy to the initiative taken by states in the legalization of medical marijuana. “States that took action [and] if the federal government decides to take action on the national level, we know it started on the state level,” he said.

While the bevy of bills introduced as part of the #TakeCTRL of privacy campaign could light a fire under Congress, it is certain they will bring privacy to the forefront and prompt action from lawmakers. “Now let the legislative process begin,” said Romero.

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