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California is the first state to allow residents to request that data brokers delete their personal data, but some worry it will be difficult to implement and enforce.
California was the first state in the nation to enact comprehensive data privacy legislation in 2018, and is similarly leading the nation with a new law designed to give consumers more control over their personal information and the ability to have it deleted by data brokers.
Known as the DELETE Act, the law signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom requires data brokers to register with the California Privacy Protection Agency and disclose the types of personal information they collect. It also mandates that the CPPA create a free and simple way for state residents to direct all data brokers to delete any personal information they hold on them, and imposes civil penalties and fines on brokers that do not follow the law.
Sen. Josh Becker, who sponsored the legislation, said after the bill was signed that lawmakers were “determined to restore consumer control over their own personal data.” CPPA Executive Director Ashkan Soltani said in a statement the law is “another privacy innovation.”
California’s efforts to give consumers more control over their data comes as Americans grow increasingly worried about how their data is being used. A survey last month from the Pew Research Center found that the share of the public that says they don’t understand what companies are doing with their data has increased to 67%, up from 59%.
The data broker industry has been under fire from privacy advocates who say that the organizations buy, aggregate, disclose and sell the personal information of millions of Americans with “virtually no oversight.” The lack of a national privacy law has allowed the industry to grow unchecked, leading to some high-profile abuses.
This month, researchers at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that it is “not difficult” to obtain sensitive data about active-duty military members, their families and veterans, with those records available for purchase for as low as 12 cents each.
Federal agencies have taken notice: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pledged to propose privacy-focused regulations earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has brought lawsuits against data brokers, including one last year against a company for selling data that tracked people to sensitive locations, such as reproductive health clinics or places of worship.
Legislation like California’s DELETE Act shows that lawmakers in some states have taken notice and are trying to undo some of the worst abuses of personal data.
And there is an appetite for more control of personal data. Research has found growing support for the right to make data subject access requests, or DSARs, which allows individuals to submit requests to organizations to access their personal information and find out how it is being used. A survey by Cisco found an increase in the number of people submitting DSARs, with those requests especially prevalent among the younger generations.
“We're seeing more of this younger generation, maybe they're more tech savvy, and they're paying a little bit more attention to the stuff they have out there,” said Harvey Jang, Cisco’s vice president, deputy general counsel and chief privacy officer. “They're beginning to realize some of the things that they posted, they probably shouldn't have posted. And they're exercising their rights related to the data that's out there and are more concerned about how they're managing their personal information.”
The DELETE Act looks to solve some of those issues about personal information, and what data brokers hold about Californians. Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO of personal information removal service DeleteMe, said it closes a “big loophole” in California’s 2018 privacy law. The legislation originally failed to define what a data broker is, or how personal information is defined. As a result, the data broker industry kept “operating, just as it always had,” Shavell said.
The DELETE Act closes that loophole. Still, there are concerns that the law may be difficult to enforce, as it puts the onus on CPPA to manage the deletion request process and implement the technology to make that work. Jang says it will be “challenging to operationalize” given the sheer number of data brokers that operate.
The CPPA, though, has until Jan. 1, 2026, to figure it out, which is the date by which the agency must have a deletion request mechanism up and running. Creating a one-stop shop could make it easier for consumers, Jang said. “It is a core privacy right to get your personal data and request deletion,” he said, “but to exercise that right, it needs to be easy to do.”
As for enforcement, the law requires that data brokers undergo an independent audit once every three years to verify their compliance with the law. But the requirement does not begin until 2028.
There may be a need to set expectations, Jang added. The DELETE Act speaks to the so-called “right to be forgotten,” which has been put into practice in several jurisdictions, including the European Union through its general data protection regulation. The right to be forgotten means individuals can ask companies to delete their data, but the EU itself acknowledges that it is a complex issue that is not as easy as it sounds.
Jang said it is almost impossible for people to be forgotten, especially given the hyperconnected world we live in. Instead, these efforts are more nuanced. “If you unpack that, it actually is not the true right to be forgotten,” he said. “It's a right to request deletion and hope that the platform deletes it, or even can.”