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Legislative Memo: State Commission on Personal Privacy

This legislation would establish a temporary state commission on personal privacy to study the ever-expanding ways in which government policies and business practices affect New Yorkers’ privacy rights. The commission would also be charged with recommending appropriate legislation to protect those rights.

The NYCLU strongly supports this bill.

No comprehensive federal or state law governs personal privacy. Legislators have no coherent, comprehensive framework for understanding how law, public policy, and the conduct of private actors affects the personal privacy of New Yorkers – in the street, on the job, using the internet, or in the marketplace.

Numerous state laws and policies implicate our personal privacy, but in many instances, privacy protections are inadequate – or nonexistent.

For example, video surveillance has increased exponentially in recent years. In New York City, cameras have become ubiquitous: in the streets, in schools, in subways, in private buildings, and in public housing. A 2005 NYCLU survey of cameras visible from street level found 4,167 cameras below fourteenth street in Manhattan, up from 769 cameras counted in that same area in 1998.

Last year, the state legislature approved the use of red light cameras in cities across the state, and similar proposals for speed enforcement cameras and bus-lane enforcement cameras are pending before the legislature. None of the laws or regulations permitting the use of these cameras adequately protects individuals’ privacy.

State laws governing medical records also implicate basic privacy rights. Currently, state and federal governments are moving ahead rapidly to implement a system of integrated electronic health records to provide for enhanced accessibility by the government and individual medical providers.

The complex nature of these electronic health record systems, the highly sensitive and personal nature of electronic health records, and the rapid pace at which they are being implemented at the state and federal level give reason to be concerned that the assumption our medical records will be maintained in confidence is a false assumption. New York law must be amended to accommodate the positive aspects of this technological advance while protecting the medical privacy of New Yorkers.

The privacy interests that arise in the context of law enforcement are many – from the expansion of the state’s DNA databank to the NYPD’s maintenance of a database that includes the personal identifiers of individuals who have been the subject of a stop and frisk, but released without legal action taken against them. These are precisely the types of issues that would be examined by the proposed commission on personal privacy.

A significant amount of personal information is collected by the private sector, and this also requires the scrutiny of lawmakers. Without adequate privacy safeguards, we may be vulnerable to the unwarranted, and potentially dangerous, use of personal information by private entities. Every day, we give away private data – credit card information, medical information, home address, and social security numbers – on the internet.

What’s more, there is an increasing convergence of databases of personal information that are maintained by the government and the private sector. Personal privacy is directly affected by this phenomenon, and protections in the law must account for the blurring of boundaries between government agents and private actors..

This bill offers the legislature the opportunity to examine and assess the extent to which there is a need for enhancing statutory protections of New Yorkers’ personal privacy. This is an important undertaking that is long overdue.

The NYCLU urges that the legislature pass S.4144-A/A.8156-A.

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