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Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees about his company’s data sharing policies after revelations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained personal information about as many as 87 million Facebook users to assist Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign without those users’ explicit consent.
But state agencies share personal data too - and unlike Facebook, according to Zuckerberg, make money selling it - without first notifying those the data pertains to. Between January 2015 and July 2107, Texas’ Secretary of State’s Office received more than 800 requests for voter registration data or fee information about that data, mostly from political campaigns and think tanks. State law requires the office to release such information, excluding social security numbers, to anyone who requests it, as long as they sign an affidavit pledging not to use the information to advertise or promote a product or service.
“This is all part of the law prescribed by the Legislature which our agency is obligated to follow,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office.
Texas also made almost $3 million last year from fees for information requests from its Department of Motor Vehicles, also permitted by state law for certain purposes, including conducting a motor vehicle-related business, such as a towing company.
In the state’s last legislative session, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R), introduced a cybersecurity bill (HB 8) that included language barring state agencies from selling an individual’s “geographic location,” “Internet browsing history,” or “application usage history.” But that language was removed from the version of the bill that ultimately passed.
Capriglione said he intends to pursue the privacy issue again next session and to use his position as chair of a House select committee on cybersecurity in that endeavor.
“It seems like no one understands that the government — federal, state local — is collecting this information and selling it themselves,” he said. “It just seems a little hypocritical on the parts of some officials to be aghast that private companies are selling birthdays, while the state and others are doing the exact same thing.” (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, NEW YORK TIMES, WIRED, TECHCRUNCH)