Privacy Becomes Bigger Issue with Explosion of Data, Internet Devices

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The marriage of the internet and data might be the “best ever,” creating a host of new services available within reach of a smartphone – but the pairing may come at a price, warns Alex Alben, the state’s chief privacy officer.

“We are living in an era where all of our data is exposed,” said Alben, speaking at the Washington State University campus in Everett on Wednesday. Where paper records tucked away in filing cabinets once were the standard for public record storage, the availability of the same information over the Internet raises a myriad of questions about security and privacy.

Chief Privacy Officer Alex Alben speaks at the Murrow School of Communication in Everett on Jan. 17

“Digital access can be the best or worst thing, depending on where you are at,” Alben said.

As the state’s first chief privacy officer and one of only five to hold such a position across the country, Alben provided perspective from his background an attorney who worked for many years in the  news broadcast and digital entertainment business before being appointed to his current position with the state in 2015.

Alben helped pioneer such sites as and, was in senior management at the streaming music company Real Networks and was an entertainment attorney for two movie production studios. His talk, Privacy in the Digital Age before students of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication focused both on privacy issues from a historical perspective and issues being grappled with today.

Especially as new technologies emerge, “we need everyone involved in IT and state government to be thinking about these issues,” Alben said. “We need to think about the lifecycle of data - about processing, storing, sharing and even deleting it.”

When a computer user deletes his or her data that’s stored on a network, they are really just deleting their own access to it, Alben noted. The data itself still exists.

Due to the work involved and low cost of computer storage, it’s now more expensive to delete data than to keep it, he said. “Consequently, there is a huge bias for data to be kept.” And what happens to that data over time is often uncertain.

Privacy concerns related to government surveillance have cropped up with the use of drones, traffic cameras, license plate readers and the movement by many municipalities to become “smart cities” with cameras and other devices to make cities more energy efficient and to monitor city infrastructure. Yet when tied to the Internet such devices could also risk an invasion of privacy.     

Another big issue is body cameras, which are increasingly being used by law enforcement as a tool for validating the circumstances of an arrest or other public interaction. While the digital media taken from those cameras may meet the definition of a public record, especially if an arrest is made on the street, is it still releasable if the camera records a police intervention inside of a private residence? The answer is not yet clear as releasing such footage could be in direct conflict with privacy rights of individuals or reveal sensitive personal information that could be critical to the case, Alben said.

Alben said there are a number of misconceptions about privacy rights. The U.S. Constitution, written more than two centuries before the dawn of the digital age, offers little direction with regards to the rights of privacy other than the wording in two amendments that protect citizens from quartering troops in their homes and protections from unreasonable search and seizure. High-visibility court cases through the years have helped guide privacy laws and practices, including a case from Washington state.

Alben described the case from the 1920s where a Seattle police lieutenant, Roy Olmstead, ran an extensive bootleg liquor smuggling operation on the side.  After he was caught and fined, Olmstead left his job but continued his operation through federal Prohibition, becoming a highly successful international rum runner. He was again arrested by federal agents who had wire-tapped his phone, but appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the wiretapping constituted illegal search and seizure. His conviction was upheld and he served five years at the federal penitentiary on McNeill Island and fined $8,000, but the debate over whether he was lawfully arrested continued. He eventually received a presidential pardon and lived the balance of his life being a model citizen, Alben noted.

More recent laws have included HIPPA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 protecting personal information contained in medical records and individual state laws that are aimed at protecting privacy.

Threats to privacy today come in many forms. They include criminal activities aimed at collecting personal information through such means as cyber hacking and the recent spate of highly publicized data breaches.  It may include unintentional exposure through the increased use of devices connected to the Internet, such as the popular, voice-activated Amazon Echo, and children’s toys connected to the Internet, baby monitors or home appliances. New miniaturized medical technologies such as “bionic ears” that allow a user to pinpoint distant conversations and “bionic eyes” under development that will essentially allow X-Ray vision also have far-reaching implications for privacy, Alben said.

Corporate America is also generating privacy concerns, Alben noted. Large credit monitoring companies aren’t so much in the business of safeguarding consumer credit as much as they are in the business of selling the information they gather to others for marketing purposes. And some companies are becoming so adept at gathering marketing information that they may know more about an individual’s movements, beliefs and preferences than a person may know about him or herself. And often consumers willingly give out their personal information in the course of completing an online transaction without truly understanding the implications are for their privacy.

Alben urged people to check the privacy settings on social media sites like Facebook, or on their web browsers, and tightening them to the highest degree possible to avoid unwittingly sharing personal information.

“Once you give something up, it’s hard to get it back,” Alben said. He said there needs to be for a more generalized right to privacy that addresses questions such as “Who can keep your data, and can it be shared or sold? Should I give my consent? Can a person update or delete their data?"

The privacy expert was asked to give his best advice for the marketing and advertising students in the audience.

“Be an advocate for privacy,” Alben said. “I actually believe that many companies are sensitive to customer relationships because they want to keep their customers. Trust cannot be eroded. I would encourage people to be aware of laws and also to be advocates for privacy.”

The Murrow School "live streamed" the event over Facebook so it could be seen on other WSU campuses and by the public. 

More information on privacy in Washington state, along with tools and tips for protecting your privacy, can be found on WaTech's partner web site,