Silicon Valley Urged To Fight Trump By Shedding User Data

Privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long called for online companies to curb their data collection practices.

Now, in light of the election results, those calls are taking on new urgency: The digital rights group EFF this week explicitly encouraged tech companies to shed data about users, in order to prevent Donald Trump from acting on some of his more extreme campaign platforms.

"President-Elect Trump has promised to deport millions of our friends and neighbors, track people based on their religious beliefs, and undermine users’ digital security and privacy," the EFF writes. "He’ll need Silicon Valley’s cooperation to do it -- and Silicon Valley can fight back."



The EFF goes on to recommend that tech companies immediately take steps to minimize data they store about users, including data gathered for marketing purposes. 

Among other measures, the EFF urges companies to refrain from using data to make certain inferences about users, like their political preferences or sexual orientations. "If you do any sort of behavioral tracking, whether using your service or across others, let users opt out," the EFF says. "This means letting users modify data that's been collected about them so far, and giving them the option to not have your service collect this information about them at all."

The rights group also calls on companies to avoid tracking techniques like "browser fingerprinting," which involves tracking users based on characteristics of their devices. (The standards group World Wide Web Consortium, directed by Web guru Tim Berners-Lee, came out against digital fingerprinting last year, characterizing the technique as "a blatant violation of the human right to privacy.”)

The EFF also suggests that companies either avoid storing users' IP addresses, or store them in files that are aggregated and then deleted. "If a tech product might be co-opted to target a vulnerable population, now is the time to minimize the harm that can be done," the EFF writes. The post includes the following Nov. 12 tweet from the paid social bookmarking service Pinboard: "Would you rather be able to say “I don’t have any location data stored for my Muslim users”, or go to jail for refusing a subpoena?"

In the past, ad tech companies have resisted calls to stop collecting data about users. Even companies that honor people's request to stop receiving behaviorally targeted ads still collect data about users, often for market research, product development or anti-fraud purposes.

Whether those companies will now voluntarily limit their data gathering efforts remains to be seen. But Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the industry-funded think tank Future of Privacy Forum, tells MediaPost that some companies are "better appreciating the risk to human rights created by holding data that government can demand."

"Data retention practices will be one area where there will be opportunities to encourage companies to recognize that long term retention of certain data types can lead to real fears of government access," he says.

Polonetsky adds that he has recently heard from some companies that are now working on encryption, for the first time. But, he says, many other businesses are simply waiting to see what the future holds.

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