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On Googling the Street Price of Drugs

Free Speech, Profiling, and Why the US Needs Stronger Data Protection Laws

A 3D-printed Facebook Like symbol is displayed in front of a U.S. flag in this illustration taken, March 18, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

Anyone in the US who has ever used the internet has probably had this moment: fingers hovering over the keyboard, wondering about the consequences of “liking” or searching for something. Who’s going to know we did this? What kinds of conclusions might they draw about our health, race, religion, politics, deepest secrets? Will the government find out? Advertisers?

And what if we’re just curious? What if the data we’re about to generate looks like it says something significant about us – but doesn’t?

For me, as a US surveillance researcher and fiction author, these moments happen every day. I’ve searched for how the government investigates the drug trade and illegal file-sharing, links between white supremacist groups, the street price of opioid medications, types of large-bore rifles, the symptoms of emphysema. None of that says anything about my personal life – but that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to a data miner.

Under human rights law, we all have a right to seek and receive information – it’s part of the right to free expression, which the US Constitution’s First Amendment also enshrines. But US federal law does very little to prevent companies from vacuuming up data about you and your interests, potentially resulting in discrimination or unnecessary harms to your privacy. The government, too, has or wants warrantless powers in this area.

And if your awareness of this has prevented you from Googling or “liking” something potentially revealing or controversial, you’ve experienced what US courts would call the “chilling effect” in the government surveillance context – a discouragement of free expression that can violate rights.

The good news is that there’s a growing movement to fix the lack of US data protections – one that’s been gaining steam since reports earlier this year about data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica’s alleged access to data about Facebook users. Human Rights Watch and other groups recently released a list of some of the things Congress should do to restrict how companies treat personal data, including limiting collection, ensuring that users can correct inaccuracies, and preventing discrimination. Lawmakers should also address when and how police and other authorities can get access to these pools of information.

People in the US shouldn’t have to simply trust that their rights will be safeguarded when they engage in free expression online. They should know the law is there to back them up.

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