The real privacy issue

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For these vocal advocates, privacy is a fundamental human right and innovations that provide consumers with economic savings, quality of life improvements or other benefits should be resisted if there is even a miniscule chance of someone’s privacy being violated. Unfortunately, when policymakers buy in to this narrative it leads to the imposition of restrictions on whatever technology happens to be causing concern at the moment, usually at the expense of innovation.

While most of the commentary surrounding Data Privacy Day will no doubt continue this general theme, a different model for addressing privacy issues may ultimately be more effective in promoting innovation while protecting privacy.

Rather than regulating (or even banning) technology with the hope that this will generate more privacy, policy should focus on the specific behaviors that are the problem. If policymakers are concerned about employers using private information on social networks to make hiring decisions, they should ban hiring managers from asking applicants for their Facebook or Twitter account login information. Or if policymakers are concerned about insurance companies using genetic information from individuals or family members to set premiums and deny coverage, then they should prohibit insurers from using this information for these particular purposes. By creating targeted rules focused on specific behaviors, policymakers can avoid the unintended spillover effects that come from regulating technologies and better ensure that consumers are protected from actual harms.

Common sense solutions like this have the benefit of standing the test of time. For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 and prohibits employers from refusing to hire a woman because she is or expects to become pregnant. The benefit of rules like these is that it avoids having policymakers try to regulate the mechanics of how the private sector handles information which leaves companies free to innovate. It also provides citizens unwavering commitments about what behaviors will not be tolerated in our society since the behavior in question is prohibited regardless of how the information is obtained.

Technology changes rapidly but societal values change much more slowly. Given this reality, it makes more sense to create rules that reflect our values and protect individuals from harm than to try to prevent the advancement of technology and the associated benefits. Whether the issue is flying drones or mobile phones, as new privacy issues come up this year we should keep this basic approach in mind.

Castro is a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.