Another view: Yes, you're being followed

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The United States focuses most of its scrutiny over data collection on a few particularly powerful technology companies. But as many as 4,000 other firms have made a $21 billion business of buying and selling people's personal information — and there is no law regulating what these brokers can do with what they collect.

A New York Times report published Monday offers a comprehensive look at how smartphone apps record users' whereabouts as often as every two seconds, following them from home to work to Planned Parenthood appointments to megachurches. That data goes to a group of companies that use it for their own purposes, from targeted advertising to price-setting to investment evaluation, or share it with others that do. The companies argue that the information is anonymous. But it is easy enough to attach precise data points to an individual. And with cyberattackers becoming ever more brazen, that is cause for special concern.

There are legitimate reasons for an app to track consumers' data. In fact, developers often cite them in permissions pop-ups: A restaurant-reviewing platform, for example, may tell users it will improve their experience by recommending highly rated restaurants near them. Third-party access to data can also end up having benefits for a consumer; users on that same reviewing platform might want to know whether a local eatery is offering a two-for-one special.

The problem is, apps do not stop at providing the helpful services they promise users. Instead, the information they collect ends up in the hands of profiteers determined to sell ads regardless of consequence. Digital ambulance chasers, the Times reports, even target visitors to emergency rooms with advertisements for personal injury lawyers.

The third-party data conundrum underscores a central problem in the privacy debate. Any reasonable bill will mandate consumer consent to data collection, with companies telling citizens precisely what their information will be used for and by whom it will be used. But actually making that consent meaningful is a difficult task.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has offered one remedy, in which Americans can enroll in a national "do-not-track" database that prohibits companies from sharing most personal information with third parties. Another route would be to place the burden on the companies, allowing them to enter into data-sharing agreements only if they can prove that the benefit to the consumer will outweigh any potential cost. At a minimum, Congress should take a cue from the state of Vermont and legislate a federal registration system for data brokers, who so far have operated in the shadows.

A person's geographic routine can reveal who they are as well as where they have been. But the sale of private information to third parties is a bigger problem: Unchecked data-brokerage that had little to do with location made the Cambridge Analytica scandal possible, as well as last week's controversy over Facebook's dealings with developers on its platform. Congress should do something about it.

— The Washington Post

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