Sen. Bill Cassidy
Sen. Bill Cassidy. Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr

Lawmakers renew effort to force data brokers to delete private information on request

A bipartisan bill to protect Americans’ private online data by establishing a system for people to compel data brokers and companies to stop collecting it was reintroduced in Congress on Thursday after a similar measure died last year.

The latest version of the Data Elimination and Limiting Extensive Tracking and Exchange (DELETE) Act differs slightly from the previous bill, incorporating feedback the bill’s authors received from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), according to a spokesperson for one of the sponsors.

The bill sponsors also crafted a more specific enforcement mechanism for tracking when individuals submit their information to the FTC for deletion, the spokesperson said.

Reps. Lori Trahan (D-MA) and Chuck Edwards (R-NC) joined Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) as sponsors.

Consumer protection advocates cheered the reintroduction of the legislation.

“Data brokers have long been a concern to policymakers because they collect and sell personal data behind the scenes and consumers have little knowledge or control over their practices,” Jessica Rich, a former director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said via email.

Also adding “fuel to the fire,” Rich said, is a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), publicly released June 5, on how the government accesses and uses commercially available data.

“I’m not surprised to see bipartisan efforts to give consumers more control over these practices,” Rich said.

The ODNI report set off a furor after intelligence officials admitted government agencies collected commercially available data “on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained, if at all, only through targeted (and predicated) collection.” The report said that the intelligence community must address the practice since it “could be used to cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety.”

The bill “would certainly improve on the status quo,” said Justin Sherman, founder and CEO of Global Cyber Strategies, a research and advisory firm, as well as a senior fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“It has limits, including that it would still allow data brokers to sell Americans’ data by default — and by making something a default, people are often far less likely to act to change it,” Sherman said. “This leaves some especially invasive data sales permitted, like the sale of Americans’ geolocation data, with the burden on consumers to know to opt out.”

The sponsors of the latest iteration of the DELETE Act blasted data brokers in a press release Thursday, with Trahan condemning “shady practice” and Ossoff decrying their “buying, collecting, and reselling vast amounts of personal information about all of us without our consent.”

If the legislation passes, the FTC would be charged with designing an online “dashboard” for Americans to make a one-time data deletion request that “would be sent to all data brokers registered,” the press release said. “Under current law, individuals must request removal from each individual data broker to ensure their privacy is protected.”

The bill also would create a “do not track list” barring future data collection.

The FTC has recently shown willingness to go after data brokers. Last July, the agency cautioned that it would use “the full scope of its legal authorities” to guard people’s private information after activists, legislators and others expressed worry over data protection after abortion bans went into effect following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.