Protecting Privacy: Massachusetts Pushing Location Data Ban
Massachusetts Takes Bold Steps to Protect Consumer Privacy with Proposed Ban on Sale of Cellphone Location Data – source: WSJ.com
In a groundbreaking move aimed at safeguarding the privacy rights of its citizens, the Massachusetts legislature is currently deliberating a pioneering bill that could mark a significant milestone in data protection. The proposed legislation, known as the Location Shield Act, seeks to impose stringent restrictions on the buying and selling of location data derived from consumers’ mobile devices. This first-of-its-kind effort to regulate the billion-dollar industry has garnered widespread attention as lawmakers consider the implications of reining in the rampant collection and exploitation of personal information.
The Massachusetts Proposal – A Sweeping Ban on Location Data Sales. At a recent hearing, the state legislature engaged in thorough discussions about the Location Shield Act, a comprehensive bill that aims to sharply curtail the practice of collecting and selling location data drawn from mobile phones within Massachusetts. The proposed legislation not only seeks to establish a warrant requirement for law enforcement agencies accessing location data but also intends to ban data brokers from providing such information about state residents without proper court authorization in most circumstances. The legislators’ focus on protecting citizens’ location data highlights the growing need for robust privacy safeguards amidst the expanding digital landscape.
Location data, often collected through mobile apps and other digital services, provides insights into users’ movements without directly revealing their personal information, such as names or phone numbers. However, the patterns of a device’s activity can potentially unveil the identity of its owner. For instance, analyzing where a phone spends its evenings and overnight hours can often lead to determining the owner’s home address, especially when cross-referenced with other databases. The Massachusetts proposal recognizes the risks associated with the exposure of such information and aims to ensure the privacy and security of its residents. This is only one example of the usefulness this data has to nefarious parties. Imagine the potential opportunities for blackmail or fraud or a variety of kinds of persecution.
Massachusetts’ progressive stance on consumer privacy is part of a broader state-level effort to bridge the gap left by the absence of a comprehensive national privacy law. In recent years, ten states, regardless of partisan affiliations, have enacted privacy laws to safeguard their residents’ digital privacy. While bipartisan proposals for privacy protection are also under consideration at the federal level, their progress has been limited. Massachusetts’ potential ban on location data sales would mark a significant step forward, placing the state at the forefront of the ongoing debate surrounding digital privacy rights.
The Location Shield Act has garnered support from a coalition of progressive activists within Massachusetts. With Democrats holding supermajorities in both state legislative chambers and controlling the governorship, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Cindy Creem, is optimistic about its prospects. However, the proposed legislation has faced opposition from a trade association representing the technology industry, which argues that it would put Massachusetts out of sync with other states. Opponents suggest that rather than implementing a complete ban, Massachusetts should explore alternative solutions, such as adopting a privacy law similar to the one recently passed in Connecticut. They advocate for giving consumers the ability to opt-out of location data sales instead of outright prohibition. However, “opt-out” mechanisms can be so perverted, sneaky, ambiguous or otherwise tricky that they are practically non-functional. For example, if a particular app asks me for location data frequently, I always say no. If I say yes even once, they start tracking me and do not stop – and finding how to turn it off is purposely (yes, PURPOSELY) difficult to do.
Backers of the Location Shield Act, including the American Civil Liberties Union and groups supporting abortion rights, argue that the need to protect digital information has been underscored by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, which granted states the ability to criminalize certain procedures. They contend that the availability of location data for sale poses risks such as tracking individuals seeking out-of-state medical procedures and potential threats to national security through the unauthorized access to personal data. By imposing stringent regulations, Massachusetts seeks to safeguard its residents’ location data and address these concerns.
The proposed legislation in Massachusetts allows digital services to collect consumer location information solely for the purpose of providing specific services, such as weather updates or ride-sharing. However, the bill seeks to impose a near total ban on the sale or transfer of location data to other entities. This comprehensive approach aims to protect consumers from indiscriminate exploitation of their data while allowing for essential services that rely on location information.
Public and private access to location data has emerged as a contentious topic, particularly as government entities, including law enforcement, the military, and intelligence agencies, increasingly rely on commercially available data sets. The growing availability of data for purchase has challenged traditional understandings of law enforcement restrictions on access. Recent reports have revealed that the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has purchased movement data from millions of phones for monitoring purposes, raising concerns about warrantless surveillance. The issue becomes more complex as location data flows to state and local police departments, potentially compromising individual privacy rights. The proposed ban on location data sales in Massachusetts seeks to address these challenges head-on.
Massachusetts’ groundbreaking proposal to ban the sale of cellphone location data represents a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle for consumer privacy. While the bill faces opposition from industry representatives, its supporters argue for the urgent need to protect citizens’ digital information in an increasingly interconnected world. If enacted, this legislation would position Massachusetts as a trailblazer in the realm of data protection, setting a precedent for other states and potentially shaping future federal legislation. As the debate continues, the balance between privacy, security, and access to data remains at the forefront of the discussion, highlighting the need for comprehensive, forward-thinking solutions to protect consumers in the digital era.