Is Your Phone Really Listening to You?

Andrew Deerin

Signals Rob Chamberlin weighs in on the future of data privacy. Will congress actually move to get something done?

SIGNALCAST: Welcome to SignalCast, the podcast from Signal Group. Signal’s a bipartisan communication and advocacy firm located in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Andrew Deerin, creative director at Signal.

Now, do you ever find yourself talking to your friend about, I don’t know, maybe taking a Caribbean vacation, only to find after your social feed inundated with ads for Caribbean vacations? Well if so, then today’s Signal Cast should be especially interesting.

I’m joined in the Signal Cast studio by our very own Rob Chamberlin who is one of our managing directors on the advocacy side of the firm. Rob, Congress continues to work on a federal privacy bill, and recent events over the past few years including data breaches from Marriott, Quora, Under Armour, and Cambridge Analytica just to name a few of, imbued a newfound focus on the issue of privacy. The EU has acted and states are starting to act, and there was a large number of hearings in the last Congress and a lot of work did get down, but now that we are in a new Congress, can we expect more progress, or will we step backwards?

First off, welcome to the SignalCast studios.

ROB CHAMBERLIN: Thanks so much, Andrew. I’m happy to be here.

SC: What do we mean when we are talking about privacy?

CHAMBERLIN: You know, that’s an interesting question. Traditionally in the past, when we’d talk about privacy, we’d talk about personally identifiable information, and that could be your name, your address, your birth date, your social security number, anything that can tie you to a transaction. And in the past, there’s been a lot of press around these data breaches that could allow financial fraud, financial theft, from some of the credit monitoring companies or perhaps someone who’s a credit card issuer.

However, as of late, there’s been a greater focus on non-PI information, and that is to your point. What am I doing? Where am I going? What am I doing on the internet? What website did I just visit? Did I just go look for a Turks and Caicos vacation, and all the sudden I’m getting hotels and villas in Turks and Caicos pushed to me? There’s been a large focus in the last few years of how this information is utilized.

Now, on the one hand, it’s a good thing. The allowance of using this information means that I have free internet, I have free email. I don’t have to pay for it because the companies are finding other ways to pay for it. The issue is, do I know exactly what they’re doing with my information? As of late, it seems like, no, I really don’t. We’re not fully aware of that.

SC: Is that because all of us have basically clicked that user agreement without actually reading anything and have given these companies access to all of this information?

CHAMBERLIN: Certainly, I think any time you sign up to something and it might be Facebook, it might be Google, it might be Verizon or AT&T. It might be your Safeway card. It might be your cable company. You’re agreeing for them to use information, and the issue is, how much notice should they give you? Should it be opt in or opt out? That continues to be a discussion that we can talk about a little bit later, but the one thing I want to focus on is, everyone likes to focus on the social media companies.

I want to be clear that this is happening across our society today. Again, your grocery stores are using which data, what you buy. They’re pushing ads to you or pushing coupons to you. Your phone providers or your internet providers, whether it be AT&T or others, are using information about what you’re doing to push ads to you. Your TV providers are using information if you’re watching Brooklyn 99 or This Is Us or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to push information to third parties who will then target you with ads and other things.

SC: Who are the leaders when it comes to the issue of privacy, and what’s happening with privacy?

CHAMBERLIN: The issue has become so broad that almost everyone is interested in it. You’ll find people who are not on the committees of jurisdiction dropping privacy bills because there’s so much focus on it. These days, though, it’s generally the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate Commerce Committee. That’s Mr. Pallone and Mr. Walden on the House side. On the Senate side, there’s been a small working group since last year, now Chairman Wicker, Senator Moran who is the chairman of a subcommittee, Senator Blumenthal and Senator Schatz. Senator Thune has been very active, especially as a prior chair, and now Ranking Member Cantwell certainly plays a much larger role in this space now that she has assumed that role in the Commerce Committee.

SC: In your view, is an issue like this bipartisan? I mean, can both sides kind of come together?

CHAMBERLIN: It’s generally bipartisan, again, with respect to the focus on it and the backlash from the consumers. I think there are still a lot of issues. The devil, as you know, is always in the details when you’re trying to get a bill done. Issues that remain out there, such as preemption, right to sue, what’s included when I talk about my privacy and what I’m protecting, and opt in and opt out. There are some traditional divisions there, but there are some nontraditional divisions there.

Typically, Republicans are going to be anti-federal preemption, but in this case, because of the risk posed to smaller companies that are generating significant growth in the US economy, there is a concern about a patchwork regulation from states. We talked about California that has already implemented a fairly significant and extreme privacy protection bill. The European Union has already done that. There are a number of other states that are out there that have either already enacted privacy protections in some form or are currently doing so.

SC: If we think that the issue broadly can bring both sides together, do you think that we will actually get a bill?

CHAMBERLIN: I am hopeful. I think there are a lot of good, smart people who are trying to do the right thing up on Capitol Hill. Now, you can’t always say that when it comes to legislation these days, but I’m buoyed by the fact that they really would like to get a product that works. I feel like they are getting closer and closer. As in everything, there’ll have to be some political give and take, but if I were to predict now, I believe that there will be some bills introduced to work from.

SC: When you say there obviously will be some give and take, I mean, what are the big obstacles that a bill like this could face?

CHAMBERLIN: Again, some of the issues I think, we have to come to ground on federal preemption. Will the Democrats agree that one bill will preempt all the patchwork of state regulations? There might be a compromise. Maybe it’s a partial federal preemption on a couple of issues. Will there be a right to sue for those consumers whose privacy has been violated? Generally, Republicans are against that, but maybe there will be a few options or narrow exceptions to offer a private right of action. Will it be opt in or opt out? I think they’ll generally come to ground on that, but again, I think the devil will be in the details, but the amount of time and effort that is being spent on this gives me some hope.

SC: All right, well, that’ll do it for today’s show. My many thanks to Rob Chamberlin for his insights on the current state of our privacy. I, for one, am very excited to see what kind of ads pop up on my feed after listening to this back and forth. You can always drop us a line at signalcast@signaldc.com or check us out on the web at signaldc.com. For our entire production staff, I’m Andrew Deerin, and we’ll see you … Hey Siri, can you finish my sentence?

SIRI: I’m Andrew Deerin, and we’ll see you next time.

SC: Not bad, not bad.