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EDITORIAL: Make them pay

Whoops! Turns out Google forgot to tell consumers its Nest Guard home security system comes with a microphone. —
Whoops! Turns out Google forgot to tell customers a home security system it sells comes with a microphone. — 123RF Stock Photo

Here’s an idea: forget toothless privacy legislation to try and take internet giants to task.

Too often it’s just, “Whoopsies! You turned off your location services but we tracked your movements anyway. Our bad,” or “Turns out we were providing your personal data to unscrupulous third parties. Won’t happen again, we promise!”

We say this as yet another “Whoopsie!” appears, this time the news that, since 2017, Google has been selling its Nest Guard home security system without informing buyers that the device had a microphone that wasn’t revealed in the device’s product specifications. Google claims that the microphones were never turned on, but heck, accidents just keep happening in the tech world.

The fallout has become all too routine.

Politicians get upset, committees call witnesses, censure is promised and occasionally fines are levied — but the fines go to governments. Once again, strangers benefit from the misuse of your data.

Your personal data ends up as a commodity and you rarely have any recourse beyond some sort of lawsuit where you have to prove that you were individually and specifically harmed by the bad conduct. And that can be very hard to do, especially when big firms hold all the cards.

So, here’s an idea. Let’s set a new baseline.

In other words, those tech firms have converted your property to their own use; they have taken a thing that belongs to you for themselves, and also for sale to others.

Maybe we should use mandatory service contracts instead.

Clearly, your personal data has value. If it didn’t, there’d been no reason to collect it — but it is collected and used, sometimes with your permission, sometimes without — and in the process, its sales make big firms big money.

In other words, those tech firms have converted your property to their own use; they have taken a thing that belongs to you for themselves, and also for sale to others.

So, instead of fining firms who are caught misusing data, why not make it legally possible to bill them for it instead?

Why not set a formal, federally legislated price tag on personal information — and even, say, an hourly rate for the amount of time that a system has access to your data in a way it shouldn’t — so we could simply invoice the firms involved? (Oh, and while we’re at it, build in a share for tech whistleblowers, too.)

If you’ve had a Google Nest Guard with an undisclosed microphone since July of 2017, maybe you should be allowed to bill a dollar a day for allowing Google the opportunity to access your conversations, even if they didn’t choose to use that hidden option.

Facebook tracking you even though you’re not a Facebook user? Fifty cents a day for scores of people would pile up quickly.

Maybe it’s time to reverse the onus on tech companies and hit them in the wallets, so that it truly is better for them to ask for full permission first, rather than to beg for free forgiveness later.

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