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March 20, 2020

The battle to protect privacy

Alastair Mactaggart ’84 is the unlikely activist behind the nation's toughest data privacy law. And he's not done yet.
by Rita Savard

Alastair Mactaggart ’84 couldn’t shake the thought of how much information Google had on him and millions of others. Where was the information going? How many parties had access to it? And at what cost? His transition from Bay Area real estate mogul to consumer privacy advocate began with a conversation.

“I was talking to a Google engineer and happened to ask just how much information the company has on people, and was told the amount of information they have about individuals through data is ‘terrifying,’” Mactaggart recalls. “I can access information from the government through the Freedom of Information Act, but I couldn’t access my own information from companies that had it. I saw a big problem and thought, I can try to fix this.”

Founder and board chair of Californians for Consumer Privacy, Mactaggart spearheaded an initiative that led to the adoption of the country’s first major consumer privacy law.

The California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect January 1. It allows any California consumer to obtain access to all the information a company has saved on them, as well as a full list of all third parties with whom that data has been shared. In addition, the law allows consumers to opt out of having their data sold to or shared with third parties and to sue companies if privacy guidelines are violated. Companies don’t have to be based in California or have a physical presence in the state to fall under the law.

Our current system of government gives a tremendous amount of power to the powerful. Justice is fairness, it is equal access, and it should work for all people—never a select few.

Alastair Mactaggart ’84 Real estate developer/data justice activist

Even after years of data-mining scandals and the larger problems they have manifested, including influencing elections, Washington—stymied by indecision, partisan gridlock, and industry lobbying—remains stalled on setting a national standard for online privacy. Mactaggart’s success has opened the door for other states and jumpstarted the conversation among federal lawmakers.

“Before smartphones arrived on the scene a little over a decade ago, real-time tracking wasn’t a thing,” Mactaggart says. “But here we are in 2020, and what the technology provides is extremely valuable. If a company can have access to information about where you shop, what you do for entertainment, your web browsing activity, your Google searches, social media likes and dislikes…then they know you. Mining that information has become a trillion-dollar industry, so the need for privacy protection is urgent.”

Citing incidents from Facebook’s data leak with Cambridge Analytica and the security breach at major credit-reporting bureau Equifax, which exposed more than half of all U.S. adults’ data, Mactaggart believes more needs to be done.

He introduced a new ballot initiative for California this year that aims to get even tougher on tech giants and other big businesses that collect people’s information. If it passes, the new law will give Californians more rights around their sensitive information, including the creation of a state agency to enforce privacy protections. That will make it even harder, Mactaggart says, for anyone to come along and weaken the present law.

“It’s an added level of protection for all Californians.”

Read about more Andover alumni working in fields of justice.

Categories: Magazine, Magazine Online

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