Ya­hoo story re­in­forces need for on­line user bill of rights

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION -

The Reuters re­port that Ya­hoo scanned hun­dreds of mil­lions of cus­tomers’ emails for in­for­ma­tion re­quested by U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials screams out — once again — the need for an on­line users’ bill of rights.

We will say it for the umpteenth time: The United States, home of Sil­i­con Val­ley, re­mains the only ma­jor de­vel­oped na­tion with­out fun­da­men­tal on­line user pro­tec­tions, and that is ap­palling. Congress has to es­tab­lish clear pri­vacy pro­tec­tion of per­sonal data, both from un­war­ranted gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion and from tech com­pa­nies’ wide­spread shar­ing of per­sonal data for profit.

Two weeks ago, Ya­hoo an­nounced that hack­ers had stolen the cre­den­tials of 500 mil­lion users. Now Reuters says the com­pany com­plied with a fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­quest to al­low a mass scan­ning of email for a spe­cific string to un­cover pos­si­ble wrong­do­ing.

This gov­ern­ment de­mand would mark a ma­jor, trou­bling de­par­ture. Usu­ally re­quests have a par­tic­u­lar tar­get and are based on find­ings of prob­a­ble cause.

Con­sumer trust in tech prod­ucts is essential to the con­tin­ued suc­cess of the in­dus­try that drives the U.S. econ­omy — and mis­trust grows with each mas­sive hack and gov­ern­ment fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion. Polling to­day shows Amer­i­can trust in U.S. tech­nol­ogy is strong, but it can quickly erode with more rev­e­la­tions like the Ya­hoo re­ports.

Pres­i­dent Obama tried twice, in 2012 and 2015, to in­tro­duce a Con­sumer Pri­vacy Bill of Rights, but each time tech com­pa­nies ar­gued that it would sti­fle in­no­va­tion. That’s the po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able buzz­word. They also fear their prof­its will be af­fected if they can’t mon­e­tize cus­tomers’ pri­vate data at will.

Things could be worse for the in­dus­try. Imag­ine the Supreme Court set­tling on­line pri­vacy is­sues on a case-by­case ba­sis based on laws writ­ten in the Dark Ages — and the av­er­age age of the jus­tices is 75. Most say they don’t even use email, let alone smart­phones or Snapchat.

Fed­eral law lim­its how much tech com­pa­nies can re­veal about Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency re­quests. Hence, Ya­hoo’s lame ini­tial re­sponse to the Reuters re­port: “Ya­hoo is a law-abid­ing com­pany, and com­plies with the laws of the United States.”

Later Ya­hoo added, “The (Reuters) ar­ti­cle is mis­lead­ing. We nar­rowly in­ter­pret ev­ery gov­ern­ment re­quest for user data to min­i­mize dis­clo­sure. The mail scan­ning de­scribed in the ar­ti­cle does not ex­ist in our sys­tems.”

Reuters is stand­ing by its story.

The Ya­hoo re­port and the Ap­ple-vs.-FBI fight last fall build the case that fur­ther de­lays in con­sumer pro­tec­tion will hurt the in­dus­try as well as con­sumers. If user trust in Sil­i­con Val­ley crum­bles, cus­tomers will look for prod­ucts and se­cu­rity sys­tems from other coun­tries.

Busi­ness con­cerns aside, here’s a rad­i­cal thought. Ba­sic pri­vacy pro­tec­tion of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion should be a fun­da­men­tal right of Amer­i­cans. Can’t we just get it done? — San Jose Mer­cury News,

Dig­i­tal First Media

The Ya­hoo re­port and the Ap­ple vs.-FBI fight last fall build the case that fur­ther de­lays in con­sumer pro­tec­tion will hurt the in­dus­try as well as con­sumers. If user trust in Sil­i­con Val­ley crum­bles, cus­tomers will look for prod­ucts and se­cu­rity sys­tems from other coun­tries.

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