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California Attorney General Beefs Up Privacy Enforcement

On July 19, 2012, Kamala D. Harris, the Attorney General of California, announced that she was forming a new group, the Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit, within the state's Department of Justice. The group includes six prosecutors who specialize in privacy, and its mandate is to protect consumer and individual privacy by civil prosecution of companies that violate federal and California privacy laws. The AG has indicated that protecting the privacy of state residents is one of her top priorities. "In the 21st Century, we share and store our most sensitive personal information on phones, computers and even the cloud. It is imperative that consumers are empowered to understand how these innovations use personal information so that we can all make informed choices about what information we want to share," the AG declared. She further stated that the "Privacy Unit will police the privacy practices of individuals and organizations to hold accountable those who misuse technology to invade the privacy of others."

Organization and Function of the Unit

The group will not limit its focus to companies based or incorporated in California, but rather will also scrutinize other companies that do business in the state. The new unit's mission to enforce and protect privacy is a broad one. It will enforce laws that regulate the collection, retention, disclosure, and destruction of private data, whether by individuals, organizations, or government. This includes laws that relate to various types of data, so as to enforce cyber privacy, health privacy, privacy in government records, and financial privacy, as well as to investigate identity theft and data breaches.

Organizationally, the new unit is part of the electronic crime ("eCrime") unit, founded in 2011 to prosecute identity theft, data intrusions, and crimes involving the use of technology. The eCrime Unit has been providing investigative and prosecutorial support to the five California regional high-tech task forces that are funded through the High Technology Theft Apprehension and Prosecution Trust Fund Program. The eCrime unit has also been providing coordination for out-of-state hi-tech crime investigation requests, and developing and providing training for law enforcement officers, prosecutors, the judiciary, and the public on cyber safety and the importance of robust data security practices.

The new unit centralizes the department's initiatives to protect privacy, including enforcement, education, and establishing partnerships with both industry and innovators. In creating the unit, the AG hoped to combine the various privacy functions of the department into a single enforcement and educational unit with privacy expertise, so as more effectively to enforce privacy laws and protect residents' privacy rights. In addition to its prosecutorial function, the group has a major educational function, which includes informing companies about what the AG views to be their privacy obligations, and informing residents of their privacy rights. The educational effort is headed by Joanne McNabb, Director of Privacy Education and Policy. Ms. McNabb formerly headed the California Office of Privacy Protection, recently shuttered due to budget constraints, which was apparently the first privacy-dedicated entity created by a state to educate its residents about their privacy rights. [footnotes omitted]

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