Rep.Mike Capuano increases fight for privacy rights with “We are Watching You Act” and “Black Box Privacy Protection Act.”
Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) cares about his constituents’ privacy rights and, in the wake of the shocking revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program, he knows that now more than ever is the time to be vigilant about anything that invades privacy.
In the last month, Congressman Capuano has filed two bills that protect privacy – the “Black Box Privacy Protection Act” and the “We Are Watching You Act.”
In his eighth term in Congress, Rep. Capuano points out that the influx of new technology into daily life brings up a myriad of issues.
“No one is keeping track of it,” said Rep. Capuano. “It is happening everywhere in our lives. I am not against anybody doing anything they want. I am against people invading my privacy without my knowledge or my choice.”
However, he does emphasize he is not trying to stop any new technology that raises privacy questions – he is just trying to lay the groundwork for laws that monitor such things.
“I want it to be consumer choice,” he said. “It is your information you should control who has it. I am trying to have a discussion about what is it we are going to give up in our private lives. By having this discussion we can try to come up with a thoughtful way to maintain what privacy we have left and maybe get some of it back.”
The “We Are Watching You Act” filed by Capuano and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) on June 13 is in response to reports that national telecommunications companies are exploring technology for digital video recorders (DVRs) that would record the personal activities of consumers as they watch television from the privacy of their own homes.
The bill points out that current law does not cover DVRs and that the proposed legislation would require both an opt-in for consumer and an on-screen warning whenever the device is recording information about consumers.
Rep. Capuano characterized these potential DVRs “an incredible invasion of privacy.”
He also believes that considering the access the government has to the phone numbers people call, the e-mails people send and the Web sites people visit, it is important that consumers decide for themselves if they want this type of DVR technology that essentially watches them as they watch television.
He also said that filing the “We Are Watching You Act” is important because it brings this type of technology to light and can help educate both consumers and lawmakers.
“If you don’t want it, first of all, you have to know about it and, second of all, you need to have the choice to turn it off,” said Rep. Capuano.
According to the bill, the DVR technology in question would utilize infrared cameras and microphones embedded in DVRs and cable boxes. A patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by Verizon notes the technology could detect a range of viewer activities.
According to the patent application, the set-top device will be able to distinguish “ambient action … of eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, humming, cleaning” and other similar actions.
The application further notes that ambient action also “comprises an interaction between the user and another user” which are described as “at least one of cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event, and talking.” The application says that this information would then be used to deliver targeted ads to the consumers.
While the patent application referred by the “We Are Watching You Act” is from Verizon, other companies such as Intel Corp. and Comcast have reportedly explored similar technology.
Though this type of technology is only in its conceptual stages it is worth noting that the Verizon patent was not approved – but not due to any issues with privacy. In fact, as Rep. Capuano emphasized, the patent was denied because the technology was found to be too simple to copyright – in other words, just about anyone can create it.
Rep. Capuano wants to make sure that Congress establishes clear boundaries on this type of technology before it becomes a reality and is in widespread use. His biggest concern is that there is currently nothing preventing companies from utilizing such technology, no obligation to notify the consumer before it is used and no obligation to give consumers the chance to opt out.
The “We Are Watching You Act” does not prohibit companies from developing this technology, but it does require prior consent from the consumer before this type of DVR can be installed in a home.
The bill says the operator of the technology must provide specific details on how collected information will be used, and who will have access to the data. When the recording device is in use, the words “We are watching you” would appear, large enough to be readable from a distance, for as long as the device is recording the viewing area.
If consumers opt out of the new technology, companies are required to offer a video service that does not collect this information, but is otherwise identical in all respects.
Filed on June 18, Capuano’s second bill, “Black Box Privacy Protection Act” was co-authored with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to give vehicle owners more control over the information collected through their car or motorcycle’s “black box” event data recorder (EDR).
This is a privacy issue Rep. Capuano has fought before, having filed a similar bill in 2004.
The new legislation requires manufacturers to notify consumers if an event data recorder is installed in their vehicle, to disclose the data collection capabilities of such a device, and provide information on how data collected may be used.
According to Capuano, the bill places ownership of the data in the hands of the vehicle owner and requires owner permission before the information can be accessed. The legislation also requires manufacturers to give consumers the option of controlling the recording function in future automobiles or motorcycles that are equipped with EDRs.
The EDRs are installed in vehicles to collect information leading up to an accident. They record factors such as speed and brake application. According to the bill, many consumers are not aware that this data has the potential of being used against them in civil or criminal proceedings, or by their insurer to increase rates.
In addition the bill points out that no federal law exists to clarify the rights of a vehicle owner with respect to this recorded data.
Under the “Black Box Privacy Protection Act” all data collected by an EDR becomes the property of the vehicle owner. The bill would make it illegal for anyone other than the vehicle owner to download or retrieve information without owner consent or a court order. The legislation also requires that all new cars equipped with EDRs allow the owner the option to control the recording function that cannot be restarted without the owner’s consent.
Like the issue of new DVR technology, Capuano says the issue of how EDRs in cars are used is another “basic issue of privacy.”
“If there is going to be something in my car that tracks anything I do, that is my information,” Capuano said “ And I should be able to turn it off.”
The use of EDRs is backed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has proposed that EDRs should be required in all cars manufactured after Sept. 1, 2014, and that the existence of the EDR must be included in the owner’s manual.
Capuano said the “Black Box Privacy Protection Act” would make the disclosure more prominent and give consumers even greater choice and privacy protections.
“This is not a conspiracy theory,” Capuano said. “This is real technology that exists and could be deployed tomorrow.”