In an opinion piece published last week in the Wall Street Journal, United States President Joe Biden calls on both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to adopt “serious” federal privacy protections. Government action to protect consumers from business practices that undermine human rights is necessary, and Congress should act to do so.
Human Rights Watch’s recent submission to the Federal Trade Commission detailed some of the human rights harms created by the lack of regulations to protect consumers and ensure accountability for tech companies’ problematic commercial surveillance. The advertising technology ecosystem has become de facto inescapable for everyone; it’s virtually impossible to avoid the pervasive tracking and sharing of information about us.
Too often, companies don’t give us the information we need, or even the ability, to meaningfully consent to how they collect our data and use it in profoundly harmful ways. In 2018, a gay online dating app shared its users’ location data and other personal information with companies to target users with behavioral advertising. Health websites and apps that send information about people's mental, sexual, or reproductive health to third parties not only violate people's privacy, but risk obstructing their access to healthcare. For example, in the US states that criminalized abortion, digital data could be used to target people seeking sexual and reproductive care.
Commercial data exploitation harms children and their right to safely grow, play, and learn online. Human Rights Watch found that the majority of education technology products used by children globally surveilled them, or were capable of doing so. Most sent, or could send, children’s personal data to at least one US-based advertising tech company.
Better privacy laws are essential for a strong democracy. We exposed how Hungary’s government exploited personal data for political campaigns, threatening people’s right to participate in democratic elections by creating an uneven political playing field.
In the absence of comprehensive US federal data protection laws, it is easy for anyone to purchase highly sensitive data about individuals that could expose everyone, from activists to politicians, to security threats or harassment.
Comprehensive data protection laws are essential for protecting human rights. These safeguards will only increase in importance as we become increasingly reliant on digital services to manage most aspects of our lives, from healthcare to education and employment. Congress and the Biden administration should do everything they can to safeguard privacy.