New unit seeks to safeguard online privacy -- Gazette.Net


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Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler called his new Internet Privacy Unit a way to target a range of crimes and consumer protections involving the privacy policies of online businesses.

Internet privacy is “one of the most essential consumer protection issues of the 21st century,” he said, adding that the free flow of information has made it easier for the wrong people to get their hands on computer users’ information.

The Maryland unit will monitor companies to make sure they are in compliance with state and federal consumer-protection laws, and also work to educate Marylanders, at home and at work, about their privacy rights, Gansler said.

The new unit is made up of staff who already work in the attorney general’s office, meaning no additional funding or spending will be required, he said.

Though issues ranging from cyber bullying to the evolving privacy policies of social media sites have received considerable attention, Gansler said no specific case sparked the decision to form the unit.

“The technology is light years ahead of the legal underpinnings in this area,” Gansler said.

As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, part of his job is to help set legal policies. In addition, his office oversees consumer-protection issues for Marylanders.

“I created this new unit to ensure that Marylanders who use the Internet every day have someone on their side, watching out for illicit online activities and working with key stakeholders to improve gaps in privacy policies,” Gansler said.

Creation of the unit was praised by an expert on digital information sharing.

“A state-level Internet Privacy Unit can serve as a valuable resource for individuals, businesses and local law-enforcement agencies, as there is a lot of confusion about what legal protections exist for online data, who has jurisdiction, and what to do if you think a law is broken,” said Steven L. Johnson, a professor of management information systems at Temple University Fox School of Business in Philadelphia.

Gansler’s initiative also serves as a reminder that online privacy is a public policy matter, Johnson said.

“As society becomes increasingly dependent on the Internet, it is even more important for government agencies to staff specialized units to keep up with developments in technology and supporting business models,” he said.

In 2011, Maryland ranked seventh nationally in the number of complaints filed to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

As president of the National Association of Attorneys General this year, Gansler made digital privacy his main initiative for the national organization.

cford@gazette.net