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Good news! Today is Data Privacy Day ... Stop sniggering at the back

Tech firms ask for FTC, new laws to end data-protection woes

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+Comment It's the first Data Privacy Day since Edward Snowden started leaking details of the enormous surveillance operations run by the NSA and GCHQ. The annual January 28 event, held in the US and Europe, may therefore seem somewhat ironic in the wake of what we now know about government snooping.

Whether you believe shadowy g-men are harvesting your online activities and analyzing your innermost secrets or not (hint: for 99 per cent of you, they're not – yet), the fact remains that there's an army of phishers and fraudsters, malware writers and black-market merchants of stolen identities that still need to be thwarted.

Here in the US the theme for the day was "respecting privacy, safeguarding data and enabling trust," (yes, really) and some of Silicon Valley's largest firms were chewing over how to get out of the current mess.

Coming in the aftermath of the Target and Neiman Marcus customer database hacks, and steadily increasing levels of fraud online, it seems companies want clearer laws on information security: while there are plenty of ways to punish hackers, it's felt firms should be held to account if folks' private records are not fully protected. How one defines that promise of protection, in an age when rampant intelligence agencies feel they need to achieve total awareness of the internet, is up in the air.

"I do think the [Obama] administration, the FTC, Intel, Microsoft, and many other entities, have said we could do with comprehensive federal privacy legislation, and that the authority the FTC has is not adequate to properly regulate this space," said Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer at Microsoft.

"If we get too technology-prescriptive in legislation, its shelf life will be limited. So we need to have strong, principles-based legislation, and the government has a key role to play. But in history there's also a role for self-regulation to interpret that within business models, data uses and technologies."

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, agreed that the US communications watchdog, the FTC, needed more powers to keep the marketplace honest, but said it was crucial the agency had teeth in order to be effective.

"We need to have a conversation about how we ascribe elements of accountability to different types of organizations and how to work with regulators like the FTC to see those incorporated. And they need to be enforceable," added David Hoffman, Intel's global privacy officer.

President Obama has signaled that he wants to get data-protection legislation on the statute books because letting the courts work it out, on a strictly case by case basis, is proving expensive for the technology industry. Congress is mulling competing plans for consumer protection and security, but don’t hold your breath.

Comment

Chances are if you're reading The Register you know the ground rules of staying safe online, but it's amazing how many people are still making the same mistakes. Never give out more information than you have to; passwords should be strong, not shared by multiple accounts, and replaced regularly; and watch your Wi-Fi and network connection activity.

"How could they be so stupid!" is something that echoes around Vulture West more often than it should, but even the best get caught out with depressing regularity. Get a few chief security officers around a bar after midnight and you'll hear some horror stories, and it's surprising how much knowledge they are willing to share among themselves.

If you fancy earning some real-world karma then share some of your security knowledge with someone who doesn’t know about it. Don’t be a dolt about it: a little education goes a long way in making life a little tougher for criminals. ®

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