With companies able to collect and store vast amounts of data about consumers for very little money, the Federal Trade Commission held a conference on Monday to discuss guidelines on how firms use that data to advertise.
While there are little in the way of legal requirements to protect consumer information, the FTC has issued voluntary guidelines on how that information should be collected, saved and shared. In February, it extended those guidelines to Internet service providers and mobile providers.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who supports rules requiring consumers to opt in before any information on them can be collected, noted the ever-lower cost of collecting and storing all sorts of information.
These advances have created extraordinary benefits for consumers but also have tremendous implications for privacy, he said. The computer cost of data collection seems to be approaching zero. Data storage costs are unbelievably low too.
Leibowitz also noted questions about certain types of information, including medical and financial. How do we treat vulnerable categories of consumers, such as children? Leibowitz asked.
The chairman declined to outline what the agency planned in terms of additional guidelines. In the past, Leibowitz has said that industry's failure to safeguard the public's privacy could lead to federal legislation.
Alan Davidson, Google's public policy director, noted how unprecedented some data collection is, including where a consumer may be at any given time.
It's one of the reasons that we really have to get this right, he said. It's a very dynamic environment. We have to be careful.
Privacy advocates have pushed for tougher regulations on big phone and Internet companies, such as AT&T Inc and Google, saying they have excessive access to and control over consumers' personal information.
In March, an online privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, asked the FTC to investigate the adequacy of Google's safeguards after the company inadvertently released users' private information.
On March 7, Google said a bug in online productivity software, Google Docs, caused a small percentage of users to inadvertently share their personal documents with other users. The bug affected 0.05 percent of all documents, according to Google.
There are few U.S. laws about the collection and use of consumer data, with exceptions for instances where firms fail to live up to advertised promises to protect privacy, or fail to deliver an expected level of data protection. (Reporting by Diana Bartz; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)