California Steps Up Privacy Efforts with New Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit

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On July 19, 2012, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced the creation of a new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit (Privacy Unit). This measure is seen as yet another step to position California as one of the most active enforcers of consumer privacy rights.

The privacy unit has a broad mission focused on protecting consumer and individual privacy for California citizens. Notably, the state's constitution guarantees all citizens the inalienable right to privacy, and the Privacy Unit will protect this right through the civil prosecution of state and federal privacy laws. According to Attorney General Harris, "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."1

The Privacy Unit will enforce laws regulating the collection, retention, disclosure, and destruction of private or sensitive information by individuals, organizations, and the government. In addition to online privacy regulation, the Privacy Unit will investigate data breaches, identity theft, and violations of offline health, financial, and government privacy regulations.

Privacy protection has been a top priority for Attorney General Harris, and the Privacy Unit initiative is just the most recent example of her efforts. In February 2012, for example, Attorney General Harris reached an agreement with six companies whose platforms comprise the majority of the mobile applications market: Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research In Motion.2 These companies have agreed to a joint statement of privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with a California law requiring mobile applications that collect personal information to have a privacy policy. In June, Facebook similarly signed on to the joint statement, thus adding the primary platform for social applications to the agreement.3

The Privacy Unit will be staffed by California Department of Justice employees, including six dedicated prosecutors. It will be organized under the state's eCrime Unit, which is charged with identifying and prosecuting technology crimes, including identity theft, fraud committed using the Internet, theft of computer components and service, intellectual property crimes (such as counterfeiting or piracy), and child exploitation using the Internet.4 Joanne McNabb, formerly of the California Office of Privacy Protection and a nationally recognized leader in the privacy field, will serve as the Director of Privacy Education and Policy, and will oversee the Privacy Unit's education and outreach efforts.

Companies that collect and use information from or about California residents should be particularly alert to policy developments and enforcement actions taken by this new Privacy Unit. For additional information on this topic or related matters, please contact Lydia Parnes, Seth Silber, Valentina Rucker, or another member of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati's privacy and data security practice.


1 For more information, please visit http://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-announces-privacy-enforcement-and-protection.

2 Additional details can be found at http://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-secures-global-agreement-strengthen-privacy.

3 To learn more, please visit http://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-announces-expansion-california%E2%80%99s-consumer.

4 Further information is available at http://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-announces-creation-ecrime-unit-targeting.