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Aldermen urged to protect cellphone privacy

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday praised the City Council for taking action to reduce cellphone thefts, like the one that targeted his own son, by reducing the value of stolen phones on the "secondary black market." | AP file photo

Chicago aldermen were urged Tuesday to protect the privacy of consumers whose cellphones provide a wealth of information about their daily movements, internet interests and buying habits.

Aldermen took no vote on three ordinances championed by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke mandating consumer protections.

But Burke made certain that aldermen got an earful about the “huge risk” posed by “data brokers” who peddle the world of information available on our smartphones to third parties.

“With every new smartphone, with every new tablet, with every new device we connect inside our homes, that risk increases,” said Peter Hanna, president of the ACLU of Illinois Next Generation Society and founding director of the Digital Privacy Alliance.

“The more sensitive data we create with our web searches, with our browsing history — even with our movements, the greater the appetite becomes to monetize that data,” he said.

Hanna warned that private companies have “wide latitude” in the U.S. to “collect, store, use and transfer all matter of personal data.”

And the way privacy laws are currently set up, companies can do that “passively without getting explicit opt-in approval-consent from” individual consumers, he said.

“When it comes to our ISP data, our browsing history, our searches, the new websites we visit, the links we click on, the links we open in the background — all of that can be digitized and put in a file that creates a profile for us,” he said.

“FCC rules . . . protect individuals from having that . . . shadow profile that exists in our computers and our smartphones from being parsed and sold to the highest bidder. This type of data . . . includes our health data, our financial data, our browsing habits, our sleeping habits, our shopping habits. And it can fall into the hands of unknown parties for unknown reasons.”

Burke has introduced three ordinances to protect consumers.

The Chicago Internet Privacy Ordinance would require consumers to “opt-in” before any provider would be allowed to collect and share a user’s personal information.

Fines would range from $250 to $1,500. Consumers would also have the “private right of civil action” to recover damages in court.

The Chicago Location Information Protection Act would prohibit cellphone providers from collecting, using, storing or disclosing a customer’s GPS location without permission. Parents and guardians would be exempt. Fines would range from $50 to $200.

And the Mobile Privacy Awareness Act would require retailers to post signs in prominent store locations warning consumers of the potential threat to their privacy when using mobile phones or other wireless devices.

Burke bemoaned the “unintentional surrender of sensitive personal information” that occurs whenever Chicagoans turn on their cellphones or use navigation apps to give them directions.

“Retailers, advertisers and third parties have the ability to create marketing profiles to an extent that would likely shock many of the average, everyday users of the technology,” he said. “At issue here is the sanctity of individual privacy rights. An informed consumer is a protected consumer.”

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