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Guarding Privacy in the Digital Age: Maine Lawmakers Take up the Challenge
01/31/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Technology for most of us has become an inextricable part of our daily lives. Cell phones, computers, email, Facebook, electronic calendars. The list goes on. As more and more of our personal information is shared, it is also at risk. Today -- "International Data Privacy Day" -- the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and a group of bipartisan legislators unveiled a new package of laws aimed at better protecting Mainers' privacy. Patty Wight has more.

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Left to right: Reps Mike McClellan and Diane Russell, Jeff Northrop, ACLU of Maine President John Paterson and Executive Director Shenna Bellows at today's news conference.

Think for a moment about how much of your personal information is stored digitally, whether it's in your own computer, someone elses, or in a virtual cloud: bank records and bills; health information; store reward cards - even the Turnpike EZ Pass.

Jeff Northrop chief technology officer for the International Association of Privacy Professionals. He says there's a growing tension surrounding privacy. On one side is the general public, which fears losing control of personal information. "On the other side we have the ever-present march of technology," he says.

And technology does a lot of good things, Northrop says. It helps companies become more efficient and productive. It helps track flu outbreaks and political hotspots. But much of that is fueled by personal information. And therein lies the tension, says Northrop. And a very challenging problem: "How can you at once resolve somebody's fears - calm their fears - while not stifling innovation?"

Challenging as it may be, some Maine legislators are taking a stab at the issue. One of them is Rep. Diane Russell, a Democrat from Portland. "I stand to you today on the corner of convenience and creepy," she said.

Russell wants to empower consumers. Her bill - The Maine Online Privacy Protection Act - would require commercial Web sites to conspicuously let Maine consumers know when personal information is being collected and shared.

Along with Russell's bill is one from Republican Rep. Mike McClellan, of Raymond. He wants to protect social media privacy at work. His bill would block employers from getting passwords to their employee's social media accounts, something, he says, that's already happening.

"You wouldn't expect your employer to say, 'When you come to work tomorrow, can you bring your photo albums, your home videos, your diary?'" he says. "You would say, 'No.' So why would we think that an employer could say, 'I want to get on your Facebook account?'"

These are just two of a package of five bills with bipartisan support that aim to protect personal privacy. The others would limit drone use for domestic spying and require law enforcement to get warrants before they can track cell phone data and text messages.

This package of bills coincides with the top priority for the Maine ACLU this year: to protect personal privacy. Executive Director Shenna Bellows says it's time for Maine laws to catch up with technology.

"A world where the government can monitor everything we do, say, or write, at anytime, without reason to believe we've done anything wrong, was once only the work of science fiction," she says. "But the technology so essential to modern life has now made possible total surveillance at all times." The biggest threat that individuals face, says Bellows, is identity theft, which is one of the fastest growing crimes in the U.S.

While these bills have bipartisan sponsors, it's unclear whether there will be support from businesses or law enforcement. Both the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Chiefs of Police Association say they haven't yet seen or discussed the proposed laws.

Photo by Patty Wight.



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