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How to Make Data Privacy Real

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The U.S. government last week settled with an app that lets women track their periods over claims that it shared its users’ health information with Google and Facebook. A photo-storage app also settled claims that it used people’s images to build a facial recognition system.

These app makers got in trouble not because what they did seemed creepy — but because they weren’t upfront about it.

In the United States, as long as companies don’t mislead their customers, there aren’t many legal limits on what they can do with our private information.

That’s not great, is it? But California has a relatively new data privacy law that — while awkward and flawed — is starting to show intriguing ways to empower Americans to limit how our data can be used.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission said that the women’s app, Flo Health, broke its promise to its users to keep their information private when it shared sensitive data including women’s pregnancy status with other companies.

According to the terms of the settlement, Flo is now required to obtain people’s consent before it shares their health information. (Flo didn’t admit it did anything wrong. The company said that it doesn’t share users’ health data without permission.)

People should be able to choose which companies to trust with our personal information as long as they’re honest about what they’re doing. However, it’s often an all-or-nothing, confusing choice: Either say yes to a vaguely worded privacy document, or don’t use the website or app at all.

And it feels bizarre to me that if Flo just releases a new privacy policy, it then can share women’s intimate information. But that’s mostly how it works in the United States. Companies can do pretty much whatever they want concerning their users’ data if they first outline their actions in a privacy policy.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which went into effect a year ago, is starting to chart a promising alternative path.

Under the law, state residents — and in some cases, all Americans — can demand that large companies show people what data they have about you and whom they’ve shared it with. People can also instruct the companies to delete and not “sell” the data they have about you. (There isn’t agreement on the legal definition of “selling.”)

The law isn’t perfect, and it’s complicated. People must go to each organization that might have their data to delete or restrict what it can do with it.

But the California law also envisioned the possibility of “authorized agents” that would exercise data rights on our behalf. Instead of you filling out 100 forms to ask 100 companies to delete your data, you would pick a privacy assistant to do it for you. Consumer Reports last month started offering to be a privacy assistant as a test project.

The most intriguing idea is that the privacy assistant might just be a web browser where you check a box once and each site you visit then gets an automated notice to prohibit the personal information collected there from being shared or sold. Think of it as a version of the telemarketer “Do Not Call” list.

So far, a few websites have started to add this privacy agent feature. (The New York Times is among the organizations involved, both helping to develop the browser specifications and agreeing to implement people’s choices.) If California determines that this kind of privacy agent is legally binding, I expect this project to expand.

These privacy ideas are just getting off the ground. But I’m intrigued by the possibility of giving Americans real power over our digital lives.

Tip of the Week

Many Americans working from home during the pandemic bought printers — and with that often came cursing and screaming. Brian X. Chen, the New York Times personal technology columnist, is here to help:

Printers are probably the worst technology product ever made. My first job out of college involved reviewing printers for a small tech magazine. So I know more than I ever wanted to about the machines. Here are some common problems and solutions:

My wireless printing stopped working: Last week you printed that Amazon return label over your Wi-Fi network. Today you can’t. Why?

Occasionally, printers go into sleep mode and disconnect from your internet network. Sometimes, restarting the printer gets it going again.

Another possibility is that the printer changed its IP address — the identifying number assigned to each internet-connected device — and now your computer can’t find it. You can fix this by going into the advanced settings of your internet router and setting a static IP address for the printer. (Do a Google search for the make and model of your router and instructions on setting a static IP.)

I get an error when I try to print: This is common and maddening. Often the problem is outdated software. Do a web search on your printer model to look for what are called new drivers or firmware updates and follow the instructions to update the software.

I run out of ink too quickly: This can happen if you bought an off-brand ink cartridge. If this becomes a recurring problem, try switching to a different brand — preferably the ink cartridge made by the printer’s manufacturer.

Another possibility is that the printer software is misfiring and the printer mistakenly states that it’s out of ink. Again, a firmware or driver update might help.

Lastly, remember the golden rule of printers: When in doubt, reboot your printer and the device you’re trying to print from. That sometimes makes the issues go away.

  • More on a possible smoking gun in the Google antitrust lawsuit: One of the intriguing claims in a government antitrust lawsuit against Google is that the company and Facebook teamed up to help their businesses at the expense of everyone else’s. New reporting by my colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu found that Google gave Facebook preferential treatment in computerized advertising auctions and that the two companies worried they might be investigated for reducing competition as a result.

  • Saying you’re doing something is not the same as doing it: Facebook has said that it stopped automatically recommending people join the kinds of partisan political or social groups that sometimes steer people to extreme ideas. An analysis of some Facebook users’ news feeds by the Markup found the site did not actually stop those automatic recommendations.

  • It’s an opportune time to wallow in nostalgia: On eBay, you can indulge in a childhood love of Sassy magazine.

Two groups of penguins — one going to the water and the other coming back — stop for a chat. (OK, I don’t know if they’re chatting. Indulge my imagination.)

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