That government-monitored mobile tracking device most of us carry around for the benefit of our nation’s domestic spying agency — that device we used to call a phone — has evolved dynamically in the past 25 years.
Smartphones — hand-held devices with Internet connectivity — can do everything a desktop computer can do. Except you can’t slip a desktop computer into your shirt pocket.
But the privacy rules that apply to mobile phones have not changed in those 25 years. The Public Utilities Commission regulations that dictate how and under what circumstances our usage can be tracked and catalogued are the same ones that applied when Michael Douglas was wielding a quart-bottle sized Motorola DynaTAC in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” Back then, we used phones to talk to people. And an “app”? That had to be a typo.
Now our smartphones are electronic beacons that betray our every move, our every communication, our every proclivity. And it’s all recorded in giant databases, both governmental and corporate.
Many people believe it’s time the PUC took a look at its antiquated privacy regulations. The PUC itself is apparently not among them. Indications are that on Jan. 16 the California regulatory agency will decide that the privacy safeguards that apply to landline activity do not apply to mobile phone activity.
If anything, the hierarchy of privacy protections should be ordered the other way.
But the PUC, given the opportunity to close gaps in privacy standards that didn’t exist a quarter-century ago before cellphones became ubiquitous, seems poised to adopt Commissioner Mark Ferron’s proposal to essentially ignore the issue. Ferron’s proposal maintains that present laws and corporate policies are enough to safeguard “potentially sensitive customer information.” He also professes that the U.S. has not experienced any serious privacy breaches — a claim that would suggest he has spent the past three years in cryogenic deep-freeze.
The PUC would be better served adopting Commissioner Catherine Sandoval’s proposal to review all telecommunication regulations and consider new privacy protections that would not have been necessary in 1986, when existing laws were established. That’s only the proper and logical thing to do, given the advances in communication technology and outsiders’ growing ability to track it.
Sandoval was appointed to the PUC two years ago precisely for her expertise in these areas; she taught telecommunications and Internet law at Santa Clara University’s School of Law. Ferron’s background is banking and economics; he and PUC President Michael Peevey typically champion the priorities of business over the rights of consumers, so three of the five votes are all but known already. The writing is on the smartphone screen: marketers apparently have as much right to know your business as you do.
But consumers still have time to weigh in. Call the two PUC commissioners whose voting inclinations aren’t yet clear. Call Commissioner Carla J. Peterman at 415-703-1407 and Commissioner Michel P. Florio at 415-703-2440 and tell them you expect the PUC to look out for ordinary Californians.