WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, has been a privacy advocate in Washington for 25 years, warning about online privacy threats. The Associated Press recently spoke with Chester about the growing public concern and official action.
Q: The Federal Trade Commission is considering developing rules to police what it says is harmful commercial surveillance. In Congress, a privacy law is close to being passed. Do these events reflect changes in public sentiment?
A: There is a growing public backlash against the use of our personal information by companies such as Google, Amazon, Meta and TikTok. People know that almost every company they deal with collects data from and about them. This useful information provides huge revenues for companies.
Q: What is behind the increased awareness and concern?
Answer: A series of data breaches in which sensitive information was stolen helped initiate the action. And parents are wary of the fact that data is being collected on their children. There is now more support for legislation that provides strong privacy protections.
Q: Most people don’t seem upset about tech companies using their data as a commodity, given the convenience of the platforms and the fact that they’re free. Do you think this attitude might change as healthcare emerges as a pool of data, such as tech companies like Amazon buying healthcare companies? Can health data put consumers on the edge of privacy?
A: I’ve always believed that once the public learns how online platforms, health care companies, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical firms are capturing their personal health information, there will be a backlash. Patients rely on the Internet to communicate with doctors, research medical conditions, and order medications. Many Americans use connected devices that reveal personal health information. Also of concern is the series of mergers and acquisitions by companies that provide health services Amazon, CVS and others. Despite what a company like Amazon might say about protecting health privacy, at its core it’s a retailer that wants to sell you medicine and health care along with cleaning products, music and movies.
Q: What might happen to national privacy laws if Republicans win majorities in the House and Senate in the November elections?
Answer: If one or both houses are controlled by Republicans, it is likely that any new privacy legislation will benefit the Internet data industry. Without a compromise, enough Democrats in the deeply divided Senate will oppose a bill that seriously fails to protect consumers — and it will likely fail.
Interviewed by Marcy Gordon. Edited for clarity and length.