Illinois Sheriff Pushes to Protect Citizen Data from Third-Party Sale

It’s not unusual to see a county sheriff go after a suspected drug dealer or address a public safety issue. It is, however, unusual to see them dive headlong into the convoluted world of technology legislation.

by / May 15, 2017

County sheriffs are, by the very nature of their position, political animals. They fight for re-election, back what they see as important legislation and give their stamps of approval to other candidates for public office. But seldom are they seen swimming in the deep and fast-moving waters of technology legislation.

But this is exactly what's happening in Cook County, Ill., where Sheriff Tom Dart is behind a push to give state residents a fighting chance when it comes to the constant exchange of their personal data for profit.

Many Internet-savvy individuals don’t blink at the idea of having their data stored by a privately held companies. After all, it is listed in the terms and conditions that everyone reads, right? But when the word that the companies are selling that data to others filters out, they feel betrayed. Who is buying the data? What are they using it for? How do I know if my data was sold?

As Dart sees it, these questions need to be answered, and if his legislation has its way, they will be.

Bills in both the Senate (passed) and House (still in progress) would impose the requirement that companies notify their customers when personal information is sold or shared with anyone other than the initial recipient. 

While he isn’t going as far as to say that companies shouldn’t be allowed to continue the seemingly unending exchange of personal information, Dart told Government Technology that he believes any company participating in data transactions should be held accountable to the people behind the information. He likens the purpose of his proposal to educating the public on crime prevention techniques.

“We are always notoriously a year or two behind the latest scheme, the latest criminal act," he said. "So my thinking was if we are never going to be able to be on the cutting edge of trying to go after crime in this area, we need to start narrowing the pool of victims."

Under the terms of the Right to Know Act, the exchange of sensitive personal information such as age, race, location, etc., must be disclosed to the owner before it's handed along to a third party.

From where Dart sits as a law enforcement professional, there is a slight bit of irony in the fact that to get any amount of data to pursue a crime, he has to jump through a host of legal hoops. And though he firmly believes those legal hoops exist for good reason, he said there is an argument to be made in holding private companies to some measurable level of scrutiny.

Whereas those in the law enforcement space might make multiple pleas before a judge to get the permission needed to obtain phone records or access data on a personal computer, companies are left unchecked to monetize data as they see fit.

Unsurprisingly, critics and lobbyists took the position that the legislation could stand up unnecessary roadblocks to a legitimate business practice, which Dart largely characterized as “disingenuous” attempts to keep data trade unencumbered. 

“As I sat there and heard from so many of the different lobbying groups, the bottom line is that they don’t want any type of inhibition put on them just being able to do what they want with information to monetize it," he said. "Any type of hurdle may cause problems in monetizing individuals’ information.”

As it stands, the Senate version of the legislation has passed and the House is working through its version. When all is said and done, Dart believes the reconciled result will be one that ultimately benefits the people of Illinois. 

When asked where he thinks Gov. Bruce Rauner will fall on the spectrum of support for the proposal, Dart said that remains to be seen.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.