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EDITORIAL: When your TV starts watching you, it’s time to demand greater privacy

A router and internet switch are displayed in East Derry, N.H., June 19. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In a more innocent time, a 1993 New Yorker cartoon showed one pooch saying to another, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Twenty-five years later, the days when people could stick a toe into the online world without compromising their privacy is a distant memory. Websites, e-services and apps have morphed into an interconnected leviathan that collects more private data than any but the most savvy among us suspects.

As the federal government loses interest in our privacy, Illinois legislators should step up to protect us from incessant data mining and reselling.


New assaults on privacy pop up every day. For example, Verizon-owned Oath, the owner of AOL and Yahoo!, is telling users who wade through the legalese that it is giving itself permission to snoop through and store their emails, instant messages, posts, photos and message attachments and share that data, including personal banking information.

If there’s a data breach at Oath, hackers could wind up with a gold mine.

Oath also says if you don’t like how it uses your data, you can’t sue but must instead go to arbitration, where the cards typically are stacked against you.

And now there’s yet a new worry.

As reported in the New York Times on Thursday, new companies have sprung up to keep tabs on what people watch on their smart TVs and connected devices, including whether they watch conservative or liberal programming and which political party debates they view. Advertisers then can pay to place ads on those TVs and devices.

One company, Samba, says it has collected viewing records from 13.5 million smart TVs in America.

When people are first setting up their TVs, Samba offers to recommend programs and provide special offers, the Times reported. Only those people who go online or click through to another message screen — if they read more than 10,000 words of privacy policy and terms of service — learn that Samba will track nearly everything on that TV, second by second.

Illinois used to be a leader in protecting citizens from assaults on privacy. Our 1970 Constitution was one of the first to recognize a meaningful right to privacy. But lately, lobbyists have successfully batted away bills drawn up to deal with ever-growing incursions on our privacy.

Even a modest bill to prevent your location — present and past — from being tracked through your phone was vetoed last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner. A different bill that would protect net neutrality in Illinois has failed so far to make it through the Legislature, which instead is considering rolling back important protections against drone surveillance.

Last week, California passed the nation’s toughest online privacy law. It requires businesses to be transparent about data collection, and it allows people to prohibit the sale of their personal data. They can even, if they like, demand that it be deleted.

If California can put a premium on protecting personal privacy, we don’t see why Illinois can’t do the same.

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