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Al Franken answers a few questions about the latest creepy ways companies are collecting personal data

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Richard Clement
Sen. Al Franken: "Facebook can keep tabs on what software you're running through the Oculus Home hub, where you're using your Oculus, and the positional tracking of your headset — and then will likely share that data among other Facebook­-owned companies."

Al Franken has a particular interest in personal privacy issues. The senator is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy and Technology, so it’s good that he and his people are doing their homework on the myriad, novel ways our digital wonderland is picking up, sifting out and trading information about where we are, what we like and whom we’re interacting with.

Lately, Franken’s been in the news ­for asking billboard giant Clear Channel Outdoor and tech darling Oculus Rift what, exactly, they’ve been doing with personal data they’re pulling in via their latest innovations.

In Clear Channel’s case, it’s a system ​called Radar​, installed on some of its jumbotron-­like billboards that, in a deal with AT&T and others, grabs location information from passing motorists, people who of course have no idea they’re being scanned.

As the ​New York Times explained, “With the data and analytics, Clear Channel Outdoor could determine the average age and gender of the people who are seeing a particular billboard in, say, Boston at a certain time and whether they subsequently visit a store. ‘In aggregate, that data can then tell you information about what the average viewer of that billboard looks like,’ said Andy Stevens, senior vice president for research and insights at Clear Channel Outdoor. ‘Obviously that’s very valuable to an advertiser.’”

What, precisely, happens after a viewer is scanned — i.e. who else gets the information that Susie Soccer Mom passed by a Von Maur store (or whatever) on Tuesday at 4:31 p.m. — was murky enough that Franken fired off a list of questions he wanted Clear Channel to answer.

That was early March. Then, last week, Franken took a similar interest in Oculus Rift, the hot virtual reality company that has tech heads in full geek frenzy over its giant goggle-­like headset, alleged to be a quantum leap in creating a “totally immersive” visual experience.

“The headset currently requires Oculus's software suite to operate, which headset wearers must use to load games and find more software in the online Oculus Store,” reported  the tech site ​Ars Technica. “The software requires an Internet-­connected process called OVRServer_x64, which sends and receives data even when you're not in a game, and ​the privacy policy ​spells out at least some of what's included in those transmissions. The short version is, Facebook can keep tabs on what software you're running through the Oculus Home hub, where you're using your Oculus, and the positional tracking of your headset — and then will likely share that data among other Facebook­-owned companies.”

The irony with Oculus Rift is that its data-­mining of consumers' personal information really isn’t much different from what we all agree to in those densely­ worded, highly mumbo-­jumboed “Terms of Service” agreements no one reads but we are all required to consent to in order to use almost any app we download. One eerie difference being that Oculus Rift, a product attached to your face and capable of scanning your eye movements, could also scan and report body movement and what facets of the immersive visuals you’re watching that your eye was drawn to most.

Stop and think about that for a second.

Franken’s official explanation for his letters to Clear Channel and Oculus Rift was, well, information gathering. He wanted clarity on exactly how this data was being collected, how “anonymous” it truly was, since most of these companies make a show of having no idea who you are exactly, other than … well, other than what? A woman? A man? A teenager? Between the age of 17 and 35? Where does “anonymous” start or end? And more importantly, what rights do you and I have to opt out of these invisible interactions?

(Actually, the better phrase is “opt in,” since that requires a conscious, informed choice on the part of the consumer, giving companies explicit permission to gather, collate and sell personal information.)

Curious about his  grander intentions, I e­mailed Franken’s staff a handful of questions. Here’s what came back.

MinnPost: What response if any did you get from Clear Channel regarding your recent questions about their billboards?

Sen. Al Franken: Earlier this year, several news reports called attention to a new joint venture between Clear Channel Outdoor — the big media company that puts up those billboard advertisements you see in cities and on the highway — and mobile carriers like AT&T.

‘Radar,’ as it’s called, uses Americans’ cell­phone data, including their location information, to measure consumer behavior and allow companies to build more targeted advertising campaigns. As top Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy and Technology, I was concerned about Radar’s relationship with consumers and the type of data the company relies upon to provide its services. That’s why I pressed Clear Channel to clarify its privacy statement and explain how the company collects, uses, and shares consumer data.

Clear Channel provided a detailed response about Radar’s collection and use of aggregated and anonymized data, and the company also explained how they share that data with third parties. I appreciate Clear Channel’s willingness to provide detailed information, and I’m going to continue to keep the dialogue open between my office and the company so that we can best ensure strong privacy protections for Americans.

MP: You’re demonstrating a focus on data-­gathering/disclosure/privacy issues with your inquiries to Clear Channel, Oculus Rift and others. Are you building your own data for drafting some kind of over­arching legislation addressing these uniquely 21st century privacy matters?

AF: You know, one of my jobs is to make sure that — as technology continues to outpace our laws — Americans can have a better understanding of what they’re signing up for when they download an app, click yes to accept a company’s terms of service, or even just go out in public. I always say that Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that means I want to make sure that companies are being good actors when they collect, store, and share your personal data. So transparency is one of my main goals — by that, I mean giving consumers the details about what’s happening with their data. But on top of that, I also want to ensure consumers have more control over their private information.

I have legislation, the Location Privacy Protection Act, that would basically give the American people better control over their very sensitive location information: where you work, where you go to school, or where your doctor’s office is, for example. My bill says that you — the consumer  — get to decide who collects your data, and you — the consumer — get to decide if your data is shared with third parties. I’ve fought to get this legislation passed into law for a long time now, and I’ll continue pressing to get it moved through Congress.

MP: At this moment, what do you regard as a bare minimum for these types of companies in terms of disclosure to/interaction with users?

AF: At bare minimum, these companies need to provide explicit and detailed information for their users about how people’s personal information is being collected, how it is being treated, and whether and with whom it is being shared.

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Comments (2)

Clear Channel to be sold...

Bain Capital bought iHeart (formerly Clear Channel) and now iHeart has been drained by Bain. Soon, iHeart/Clear Channel will file for bankruptcy, contracts terminated (bye-bye Rush Limbaugh), the business broken up, and sold in pieces (including the outdoor billboard business) to a number of buyers.

Along with the Senator's

Along with the Senator's "bare basics" to be required (what information is being collected, how stored and how shared and with whom), he and the Senate--the Congress--should develop a method by which the consumer can opt out of having their information gathered in the first place. Preferably, by an "opt in" requirement where nothing is gathered without specific authorization. By any app maker.

Somewhere here, there's a terrifying assumption that because these tech companies CAN gather all this information, they should be able to do so, legally. We have to fight that assumption, and I urge Senator Franken to be more than a pest who asks questions of these companies and then seems pleased that they even bother to respond.