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In the early months of the Trump Administration, damaging leaks have come out of the White House ranging from stories of staff infighting to descriptions of the President’s calls with heads of state. According to a recent Politico report, the leaks have caused a culture of paranoia to spread among White House staff. Staffers are taking extreme measures to protect their privacy by turning off work-issued smartphones when they get home, and using encrypted messaging apps that automatically delete messages once they’ve been read. Others are leaving their personal mobile devices at home in the event their bosses and Administration lawyers engage in phone checks and search for leaks. While White House staffers scramble to protect their private communications, Congress is moving in the opposite direction to eliminate any expectations of Americans having private communications networks.
Last week, Senator Jeff Flake and 21 cosponsors introduced a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband privacy rules. These protections, adopted by the FCC last year, govern how broadband providers use the personal information that they have about their customers – including browsing history, geo-location information, and financial information. They prevent broadband providers from selling or giving away sensitive customer information without consent, create clear security requirements for broadband carriers to protect customers’ personal information, and require notification of customers in the event of a data breach. If the resolution is passed, not only will consumers be left without any choice about how their broadband providers uses sensitive customer data, but the FCC would also be prohibited from ever creating similar consumer privacy protections in the future.
Congress’ recent actions on broadband privacy should be very concerning for consumers. Broadband providers (both wired and wireless) have access to an incredible amount of information on their customers including web browsing history, their location, financial information, and information relating to their children. This is sensitive information that Americans assume is communicated securely every time they use a connected device to make a phone call or look something up online. Consumers know the difference between the infinite number of websites that may track use of their services and the one (or two) choices they have for high speed internet access…the broadband companies that manage, deliver, and see all of their traffic.
While White House staffers are fearful of their personal phone messages being leaked, without FCC protections, consumers would not have a choice if their personal information was sold to the highest bidder without their consent. ISPs would also not have to take reasonable data security measures when it comes to protecting their customers’ personal information. In a time when online services are constantly getting hacked, and the CIA is subject to hacking, ISPs should be required to take basic steps to keep customer data secure and inform them of data breaches. Eliminating this protection shows that for some, cybersecurity is only a priority when it’s not average Americans who are being hacked.
White House staff may be able to go to great lengths to make sure their communications are secure, but Senator Flake’s resolution will ensure consumers cannot. Consumers rely on the internet for everyday activities such as applying for jobs, checking medical records, and completing homework. Instead of trying to eliminate their privacy protections, Congress should be working to reassure consumers that their personal information is securely protected rather than perpetuate paranoia that would result from no privacy protections.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Tom Murphy