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Editorial: Legislatures need to force companies to deal forthrightly with consumers' privacy

The compromise of individual personal data started out in the most subtle ways, gaining steam throughout an increasingly technological age adopted by ubiquitous personal devices.

Many of us hardly blink at the “I agree” box at the end of virtually every user agreement. Clicking on the box often means access to free technological tools designed to enable more efficient ways in which to work, live and play. But at what cost?

It should not just be security researchers, lawyers and privacy watchdogs raising alarms. Anyone who owns a smartphone, computer or one of those new fancy devices that answers back when asked a question – who hasn’t seen one of those cute commercials? – should take a minute to consider the real cost.

Software companies obtain permission from consumers to collect all sorts of personal data through end-user license agreements, or EULAs. As a recent McClatchy Newspapers article published in The Buffalo News noted, one researcher has suggested the data collection potentially poses a national security threat.

Articles published in late July likely sent shudders through anyone who purchased certain models of the Roomba robotic vacuum. Turns out, the nifty devices aren’t just dust busters but data collectors, mapping the homes of users and sending the data back to headquarters. What?

Although Massachusetts manufacturer iRobot Corp. may share the data on the premise that doing so will enable these new age devices to work better, of course only with customer consent. The iRobot chief executive even went as far as to promise never to sell customer data. Even so, other companies do not feel compelled to make the same promise.

Personalized information on buyers’ habits is priceless to advertisers. Many people are happy to give away this information for free in order to connect with friends and family on social media where they download, upload and “share” all sorts of details. Software programs make curating memories online so easy. Just click this “I agree” button to get started. Then wait a few seconds for those curated personalized advertisements.

Legislatures need to enact laws forcing companies to be specific on what information is being gathered, as the chief executive of a cybersecurity firm suggested.
Or, how about this: Stop devices from spying on people. Instead of offering services or products for free so that the consumer essentially becomes the product, charge a fee.

True privacy would be worth the expense.

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