Regulatory Reform

Government Threatens Montanans Privacy

By: Representative Daniel Zolnikov, House District 47, Billings Heights

We take privacy for granted. Too often we mistakenly assume that we are the only ones privy to our personal information. We assume it is within our discretion to decide who has access to the most intimate details of our personal lives –unfortunately, as the latest headlines have shown, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The National Security Agency has implemented policies undermining the expectation of privacy that every American assumes they have. I say “assumes” because after the “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management” program (aka PRISM) came to light, it is obvious that Americans no longer have any privacy from their government. The initial leak revealed that the NSA is collecting information about American’s cell phone use and granting themselves unrestricted license to our most personal conversations. As more knowledge is obtained, we now know that the NSA is collecting ALL of our digital communications. Tragically, rather than own up to their illegal actions, the President’s administration has instead chosen to accost the original informant and even acclaimed members of our press, rather than address the issue at hand: the right of American’s to lead a private life without government intrusion and surveillance.

The quiet and well-kept secret of NSA spying on unsuspecting American citizens via phone and internet surveillance is done in the name of protecting us from terrorist attacks and keeping America safe. Yet many of the individuals under surveillance do not fit any of the prerequisite criteria for being a “terror suspect”, thus making us ask the question, “why are we being spied upon?”

Preserving our national security has always come at a cost, but the feeling of security should never be used as a justification for the degradation of individual liberty. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Privacy from government intrusion is key to Franklin’s liberty.

During the past 2013 legislative session I introduced HB 603, a bill recently signed into law that restricts law enforcement officials from using cell phone location information obtained from third party providers without first obtaining a warrant. My bill was a bi-partisan effort by Republicans and Democrats who worked together to protect Montanans from undue government overreach and unwarranted surveillance.

Another piece of legislation I sponsored during the legislative session was HB 400, a bill to create a data privacy act to protect Montanans by preventing companies and government agencies from obtaining our personal information without our consent. As it stands, there is no law currently on the books to protect Montanans from having our personal data sold without our consent. For example, remember the prescription that you had filled at the local CVS? The one where they ask for your phone number, address and date of birth before filling? All of that personal data, and much more, is available for purchase to the highest bidder.

That’s right, your life and the information surrounding it, is being placed on auction to the highest third party vendor so that in the future you can be targeted for expanded marketing efforts by companies for whatever use the purchasing company sees fit.

HB 400 would have solved this problem by enabling individuals to choose whether or not their information could be resold to third party vendors. Was this bill considered far reaching? Yes. And that was exactly the point.

Our personal information, even if held by a third party provider, is our own private information, and the control and access of that information must remain with the individual. Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong supporter of lowering taxes and removing overburdening regulations to promote a more business friendly environment in Montana, but the lack of policy concerning individual privacy is beyond acceptable.

To a typical Montanan, this type of legislation would seem to be common sense and in the best interest of Montanans. Some politicians in Helena, more concerned about their reelection than representing the citizens of our state, thought differently. Lobbyists and special interest groups rallied against HB 400 because they decided that obtaining our information without consent and selling it was more important than protecting Montanans and their private information. Personal data collection is a billion dollar industry, so naturally these special interest groups would work to ensure the failure of any legislation that would protect your rights and strip their profits.

At this point, it is common knowledge that your information is being collected. So what can we do to ensure that we, as individuals, have at the very least the ability to control who utilizes that information? While some of the opponents to my privacy legislation suggest we stop using the technology if we don’t want our privacy compromised, we know that in our rapidly advancing and technologically driven society this is not an option. A lazy answer and a cute sound bite isn’t the remedy to protecting our privacy. We need a clear path forward on how to ensure privacy for all individuals – and the first step needs to be taken by our elected officials.

As sad as it seems, we are living in a time when our rights are no longer guaranteed but must instead be legislated. In light of the current national controversy sweeping our nation regarding the protection of personal information, it is my hope that more of our elected officials will be prompted to join me in working to ensure the fundamental right of privacy for all Montanans.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov is the Montana State Representative for House District 47, the Billings Heights area of Billings, MT. Rep. Zolnikov serves on the Local Government Committee, the Taxation Committee, and the Committee on Federal Relations, Energy, and Telecommunications.

This article originally appeared on and was reproduced with permission from MTGOP. Please do not further redistribute this or post online without permission from MTGOP.

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