Data Privacy: Legal Landscape in the United States

The issue of data privacy is not a twenty-first century concept: it is a debate that goes back more than a century. In an increasingly interconnected world with rapidly developing technology, it is important to take a step back and realize what is happening with the information we provide when we type on a keyboard and browse the internet. 

Comprehensive data protection laws have now come into force in over eighty countries and independent states. This legislation has been adopted in the majority of European nations and many countries in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. The European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 with the aim of giving individuals control over their personal data and simplifying the regulatory environment for international business. The current legal landscape in the United States does not contain a comprehensive federal privacy bill. Limited sectoral laws have been established in some states but unless action is taken at a federal level, privacy legislation only protects the rights of residents in the areas in which they have been established. 

There is often no clear precedent, legal or otherwise, surrounding private use of consumer data in most U.S. states. States may implement their own privacy laws influencing what companies can do when it comes to data usage of employees, customers, or the general public. California has recently enacted the California COnsumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which aims to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection for state residents.

There has been progress in proposing privacy legislation at the federal level throughout 2019:

–       Online Privacy Act provides consumers with foundational data privacy rights, creates strong oversight mechanisms, and establishes meaningful enforcement. A new federal agency, the United States Digital Privacy Agency would be established to enforce the rights and requirements of this act. 

–       Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data Act requires data operators to provide each user of the commercial data with an assessment of the economic value that the commercial data operator places on the data of that user in a clear and conspicuous manner.

–       American Data Dissemination Act provides a national consumer data privacy law that would protect consumers as well as the innovative capabilities of the internet economy.

–       Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Act of 2019 gives consumers the right to opt out and keeps their information private by disabling data tracking and collection. It would also provide users with greater access and control over their data and require service agreements to be in clear language. 

–       Privacy Bill of Rights Act introduces comprehensive privacy legislation intended to protect individuals. The Act combines the European Union’s GDPR terms of prior-consent with the CCPA’s broad definition of personal information. 

Privacy advocates hope that the proposals made throughout 2019 will progress through Congress in 2020 in order to change the legal landscape of data privacy in the U.S. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the United States, and in a period when more and more people are confined to their homes and spending more time online, it is important to understand the current legal situation in terms of data usage. During this crisis, coordinated data sharing has become a vital tool in the ongoing battle against COVID-19. A variety of mass data collection methods are already in use as scientists continue their work in the development of a suitable vaccine along with politicians’ actions to create public health protocols in efforts to curtail the spread of the virus. It could be the case that location and health data of local populations may be effective as a strategy to contain coronavirus but even in this time of crisis, data privacy remains an important ethical consideration–in an uncertain legal landscape.

Conor White has recently graduated with a Professional Master of Education from the National University of Ireland, Galway. His university research included a study of migration integration in the Irish school system as well as a dissertation on the use of mapping as a teaching methodology in the classroom. He was part of a geographic international university field study of environmental change in Chengdu, China in 2016. He is currently in the U.S. on a graduate visa program and is working with the American Geographical Society as a research, writing, and mapping assistant.