Why Data Privacy Is a Real Campaign Issue in 2016

Cruz, O'Malley, Paul, Sanders and Others Have Weighed in

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Senator Rand Paul's presidential campaign banked on his filibuster against the Patriot Act to drum up supporter contact information and donations. But the Kentucky Republican isn't the only presidential hopeful who's injected data collection and privacy into 2016 election dialogue.

"Instead of a government that seizes your e-mails and your cell phones, imagine a federal government that protected the privacy rights of every American," said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in his presidential campaign announcement.

In his own campaign launch speech, Sen. Paul said he wanted "A return to a government restrained by the Constitution, a return to privacy, opportunity and liberty."

In May the libertarian-leaning candidate made another splash on the privacy front when he spoke for hours on the Senate floor against provisions of the Patriot Act that allowed for bulk collection of phone metadata by the National Security Agency. The Rand Paul for President digital team ran online ads pushing supporters to "Add your name to Rand's Patriot Act filibuster today!" and sold a filibuster-related collection of merchandise for donation funds called the "filibuster starter pack." The package included a t-shirt that reads, "The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul tshirt."

While issues such as commercial and government data security and privacy probably won't be front and center for candidates, this appears to be the first election season in which privacy has spawned much, if any, discussion among presidential hopefuls.

"I don't think data privacy, particularly consumer data privacy, has ever been part of a presidential candidate's platform," said Julia Horwitz, consumer protection counsel, coordinator for the Electronic Privacy Information Center's open government program. "That doesn't necessarily mean that candidates haven't believed in the principles of data privacy, but we have only recently developed a cultural vocabulary for discussing consumer data privacy issues."

Government data gathering is far and away the more prevalent privacy topic compared to consumer and commercial data collection among candidates; however, two Democratic underdogs have drawn connections between the two.

Sen. Bernie Sanders in May proposed a defense bill amendment calling for a "Commission on Privacy Rights in the Digital Age" to evaluate the effect of technology on privacy. "Consumers are often unaware of the collection of their data and how their information can be collected, bought and sold by private companies," states the amendment. The panel would "examine the ways in which public agencies and private companies gather data on the people of the United States," "the ways in which that data is utilized, either internally or externally," and "make recommendations concerning potential policy changes needed to safeguard the privacy of the people of the United States."

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley recently alluded to the 2013 Target data breach, in a Foreign Policy opinion piece, though his focus is on data security. "When hackers attacked the American retail chain Target last year, they stole data from an astonishing 110 million shoppers -- roughly one in three Americans. The thieves then sold the information for more than $50 million on the black market," he wrote in the column supporting the federal Protecting Cyber Networks Act. "After making changes to protect consumer data and ensure the appropriate level of legal protection for companies, Congress should pass this legislation," wrote the Democratic presidential candidate.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has kept her distance from the subject, though when Congress debated Patriot Act reform in May, she tweeted support for changes that would limit government data collection.

Data privacy is "likely part of presidential campaigns now," said Ms. Horwitz. "We now have a number of terms that we can use to discuss data privacy in a way that wasn't possible 10 years ago. For example, politicians and voters alike probably know the terms 'big data' and 'data breach.' Voters may also have heard of the 'Internet of Things,' 'targeted advertising' and 'encryption'…. Since it's easier to talk about the problems, politicians likely feel that they can more easily engage voters on potential solutions."

Meanwhile, Florida Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio staunchly support bulk telephone data collection by the National Security Agency, which was recently put on hold. Indeed, Sen. Rubio compared government data harvesting to corporate data collection in a May USA Today opinion piece. "Internet search providers, Internet-based email accounts, credit card companies and membership discount cards used at the grocery store all collect far more personal information on Americans than the bulk metadata program," wrote Mr. Rubio.

Of course, at least some of that commercial data collection only happens when consumers opt-in to allow it, unlike NSA surveillance which gives citizens no choice.

With months of primary campaigning to come, we can anticipate the privacy talk to continue, said Ms. Horwitz. "Because privacy is a bipartisan issue, I expect that it will come up frequently during the upcoming election."