Privacy has long been a serious issue on the web. Now, a new bill authored by Senator Al Franken wants to address some of those concerns -- and from where we sit, it's arrived just in the nick of time.
In the early days of Web 1.0, long before the rise of social networking, privacy concerns centered mostly around online chats, cyber stalkers, and online predators. The idea that you might be talking to someone who wasn't who s/he claimed to be was frightening -- and still is.
The problems ramped up dramatically when the web went social. Facebook alone has over half a billion users, many of whom allow the general public full access to their personal info. Add to that the millions of profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, and other sites, and you've got a lot of potentially sensitive information floating around. Google Street View magnified the problem, photographing people who might never have touched a computer and putting them on the web. (Street View's capturing of private emails didn't help matters.)
And then came the mobile web. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Apple iPhones have been tracking users' movements, and one week ago, a savvy Nissan Leaf owner in Washington state discovered a flaw in Nissan's CARWINGS telematics system that records users' location and speed whenever they access an RSS feed. Google, Apple, and Nissan all deny that their intent was to invade privacy, but the fact remains that they allowed these problems to happen.
Al Franken to the rescue
Senator Franken (D-Minnesota), with the help of Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), has introduced the Location Privacy Act of 2011 (PDF), which aims "to close current loopholes in federal law to ensure that consumers know what location information is being collected about them and allow them to decide if they want to share it". At heart, it's a consumer protection bill, forcing companies to make location information "opt-in" instead of "opt-out".
This couldn't happen at a better time. Thanks to a bevy of mobile devices -- smartphones, tablets, and the still-trusty laptop -- the web is becoming nearly ubiquitous. As we move toward a world in which internet access is as common as radio, it's important that people avoid sharing sensitive information over less-secure networks. Some users are savvy enough to keep privacy settings high on their own, but for most of the population, an "opt-in" law is a better idea.
That's not to say that people won't keep sharing. Between Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR, Yelp, Facebook, and other geolocational apps, folks will continue to post their thoughts, photos, and, of course, locations. But should Franken's bill become law, there'll be an extra layer of protection.
About the feds...
Franken's bill is specifically targeted at commercial service providers (e.g. Facebook, mobile networks, etc.), and it makes a number of exceptions for law enforcement agents to track down criminals.
A separate bill is being pushed by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called the "Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act", which includes specific language about government agencies. The GPS Act allows governmental workers to access geolocational information, but only in certain cases. In essence, it puts geotracking on par with wiretapping -- with comparable standards.
This is a brave new world we're facing, and both pieces of legislation sound like good ideas to us. But maybe we're overreacting? Weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below.