Giving web users more control of their personal information online became a key priority for members of Congress in the past year, as well as for federal regulators and the technology industry, which sought to head off regulation by suggesting guidelines of its own.
The momentum for stronger federal regulations on how data can be used and shared began to grow after Facebook faced criticism late last year for creating complex changes to its privacy polices that made some data more publicly available. Apple and AT&T, meanwhile, were criticized in 2010 for a data breach that revealed the network identities of iPad users, while Google said it accidentally snooped on residential Wi-Fi networks as it collected information for location-based applications.
Amid growing concern about how much information students are revealing about themselves in their personal profiles on social networking web sites and other online services, the national child advocacy group Common Sense Media launched a national campaign called “Do Not Track Kids.” The project asks adults, parents, and teens to help make a stand for online privacy by demanding that companies provide an “opt-in” feature for sharing the information of all children under the age of 18.
In December, the Federal Trade Commission proposed to create a “Do Not Track” tool for enhancing online privacy, so that people could prevent marketers from tracking their web browsing habits and other online behavior in order to deliver targeted advertising. Later that month, aiming to set ground rules for companies that collect personal data online and use that information for marketing purposes, the Commerce Department called for the creation of an online privacy “bill of rights” for internet users.
But it wasn’t just the technology industry that made headlines for serious breaches of privacy this year. In February, a suburban Philadelphia family sued the Lower Merion School District for using the webcams in school-issued laptop computers to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations.
The district admitted it captured thousands of webcam photographs and screen shots from student laptops in a misguided effort to locate missing computers. It agreed to pay $610,000 to settle the lawsuit and another suit filed by a second student.