Wicker in The Washington Times: Protecting consumer data during the pandemic and beyond

SAFE DATA Act would provide Americans with more transparency, choice and control over data in a uniform approach

January 27, 2021

Over the past two decades, data-driven technology has transformed our daily lives. Internet-connected devices and services are virtually everywhere, and rapid innovation continues to drive technology forward. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened our growing reliance on technology.

The result is more consumer data flowing through the economy with undeniable economic and social benefits. Businesses use data to glean meaningful insights about the preferences and demands of consumers. Data has helped target investment, created thousands of jobs and propelled the U.S. tech industry forward on the world stage.

Data is helping public health authorities fight COVID-19, limit future outbreaks, and ensure our hospitals are properly resourced to tend to patients safely.

Yet, while the benefits of data are immense, so too are the risks. Private consumer information in the digital economy has become a target for cyber-criminals and other bad actors. With Americans staying home amid the pandemic, the surge in Internet usage has created new opportunities for the misuse of data.

This danger is exacerbated by the failure of some companies to protect user data from misuse and unwanted collection and processing. These pitfalls threaten to undermine consumer trust and diminish engagement online at a time when we need more economic engagement, not less.

As chairman of the Commerce Committee, my colleagues and I have worked to develop a strong, national privacy law that would provide baseline data protections for all Americans. Throughout this process, we have heard wide-ranging ideas from advocacy groups, state and local governments, industry, nonprofits, and academics. Representatives from private industry, such as retailers and convenience stores, Internet and cloud service providers, tech companies, and small businesses, have also provided thoughtful insights to the Committee. 

With the help of that comprehensive feedback, I introduced the Setting an American Framework to Ensure Data Access, Transparency, and Accountability (SAFE DATA) Act to provide all Americans with more transparency, choice, and control over their data. The bill would require businesses to be more accountable to consumers when they seek to use their data for undesired purposes. The legislation would empower the Federal Trade Commission to take swift action against violations and respond effectively to the emergence of potentially harmful technology.

With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more and more economic activity online, the need has never been greater for a national privacy law. The SAFE DATA Act would provide certainty and clear, workable rules for individuals and businesses in all 50 states, and a uniform approach to foster innovation and inspire trust.  

Many state legislatures are proposing their own state privacy laws and some have already taken effect. As more states act, these laws would create a patchwork of regulations across the U.S. that would generate confusion and raise compliance costs for organizations operating across state lines. This would stifle innovation and threaten small business entrepreneurs. If companies utilizing data struggle to keep up with fragmented state laws, we cannot expect consumers to trust these companies to protect their data.

Our nation needs a strong and consistent federal data privacy law to reduce confusion and ensure people know they will have the same privacy protections anywhere in the U.S.

Congress can achieve all of this while preserving the economic and social benefits of authorized data collection and encouraging continued investment and innovation in the tech industry. The SAFE DATA Act strikes the right balance and paves a path forward for the increasingly important digital economy, both during the pandemic and beyond.

This op-ed was orginally ran in The Washington Times