BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know you’re being watched, scrutiny that intensifies with every new online service you participate in, from mobile banking to the latest social networking site. There are already laws, both state and federal, on the books that protect consumer privacy. But the State of California is trying to ensure that enforcement keeps up with technology by creating a new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit. Kamala Harris is California’s attorney general. Kamala, welcome to On the Media.
KAMALA HARRIS: Thank you, Brooke, great to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the fact that you are the attorney general of California, maybe you’re in a stronger position than many other state attorneys general?
KAMALA HARRIS: Well, Brooke, I have to tell you, as a career prosecutor, I am fully aware of the big stick [LAUGHS] that we carry. I’m very proud as a Californian in the fact that in our back yard the technology that is changing the way the world works is developing. It has improved the way we communicate; it has allowed us to be more efficient.
However, in this beautiful new world there are also vulnerable people, there are predators and there is the potential for violation of privacy. So we created this unit of six prosecutors that I’ve assigned to investigate and prosecute whenever there’s a, a violation of those laws that are designed to protect consumers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the pattern of behavior that you’re trying to fix?
KAMALA HARRIS: For example, when a company has a data breach and it impacts over 500 Californians, that company must report it to my office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, because there is a tendency for them to cover this stuff up.
KAMALA HARRIS: Absolutely right, and which means that you, the consumer, will have no idea that your private information has been shared with someone you didn’t intend or want to share it with.
We have put in place rules that require that the user is informed, and then let it be the choice of the user whether they want to give up some privacy in exchange for whatever benefit. So, for example, you know, a lot of us on our smart phones, we’ve downloaded the app for a flashlight. Well, if the technology were such that in order to have that flashlight you’d have to give up your entire contact list, first and foremost, we need to let the user know, and then second, give the user the choice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do things like the Mobile Apps Agreement or the new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit mean for consumers outside of California? Is a consumer in Detroit or Paris as well protected as the consumer in San Francisco?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If any of these companies has one California consumer, then they’ll have to comply with these rules for all of their users.
KAMALA HARRIS: That’s the practical effect. The user in California will download the same app that the user in Missouri will download.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What if the California consumer uses services from companies that are not inside of California?
KAMALA HARRIS: As long as a Californian is impacted, we will take jurisdiction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a recent post, a Wired.com writer named David Kravitz wrote that Silicon Valley has a policy of, quote, “Invading user privacy by default and apologizing for it later.” Do you think that this new office will be able to change that culture?
KAMALA HARRIS: It’s been my experience so far that the companies that are creating this technology, when approached, they understand that if they are to enjoy a reputation of being a good corporate citizen, they have to comply with the law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kamala, thank you very much.
KAMALA HARRIS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kamala Harris is the attorney general of California.