A little more than a year ago, I wrote a newspaper op-ed explaining why, as the sheriff of Cook County, I had proposed a law called The Right to Know Act, which would increase transparency around the sale of personal data by companies to third parties.
I feared that the privacy of unsuspecting Illinois consumers was being violated by companies looking to make a profit off their personal information.
In recent days, my fears have been fully realized and worse. It seems that Facebook, a company that implored us to trust them with information on our likes, locations and relationships, was actually not policing its own platform, resulting in the improper acquisition of at least 50 million users’ private information by research firm Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook and its management deserve the backlash they now face from users, Congress and shareholders. Additionally, there absolutely should be federal regulation, as it’s clear that Facebook cannot be trusted with the troves of personal data the company manages. More broadly, though, in addition to being a cautionary tale about social media use, the Facebook scandal should serve as a wakeup call to consumers.
The reality is, your personal data has become a kind of digital currency, peddled between corporations and advertisers, and used to inform efforts to influence you. Every day, consumers unknowingly agree to user policies that allow the companies with which they do business to sell their data to third parties.
Facebook is not the only entity housing multitudes of data; there are also large third-party data brokerages that buy consumer information from companies. One such brokerage has bragged about collecting 1,500 different pieces of information on more than 200 million Americas.
I believe consumers have a right to know what companies are doing with their personal data and make decisions on who they want to do business with based on that information. Thus, I urge passage of the Right to Know Act, which would mandate that upon request from a consumer, a company would relinquish information about where they are selling that consumer’s data.
Last year, the bill made steady progress through the Illinois House and Senate but was not called to the floor of either chamber. I will be working with and imploring state representatives and senators to move this legislation forward.
When I proposed the Right to Know Act, many large tech companies and social media sites lobbied hard against it, and the Cambridge Analytica situation that came to light last week explains why. These entities operate more profitably when their users are complacent about how personal data is protected and sold. That complacency must end now.
As our lives have become increasingly digitalized, the paradigm of trust between company and consumer has shifted. As I mentioned in my op-ed last year, we would not purchase items from a brick-and-mortar department store that refused to sells to us before collecting all of our personal information and bringing it to a back room that we could not access.
It’s time to wake up and demand information about our information.
Tom Dart has been sheriff of Cook County since 2007.