Supervisors Push For 21st Century Privacy Protections

Supervisors Push For 21st Century Privacy Protections

Update four decades in the making

SAN JOSE – To fulfill its obligation to protect the public’s privacy, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors moved forward with three privacy protection actions at recent meetings:

  • In response to an earlier proposal by County Supervisor Joe Simitian, the Board substantially updated the County’s privacy ordinance to protect personal information about the County’s residents and clients;
  • The Board adopted a detailed description of the duties of the County Privacy Office; and,
  • The Board also approved a subsequent proposal from Simitian that directs County Administration to begin the process of creating a secure file transfer system that could be used across all County departments to ensure that the files submitted by constituents are secure and confidential.

“We gather a lot of information about our residents, and a lot of it is incredibly sensitive,” said Simitian. “While the goal of using these technologies and systems is to better serve the public, we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that both new and existing technologies could be used improperly–whether intentionally or unintentionally. We need to recognize that the County has an ongoing obligation to protect the information we collect from our residents.”

The updates to the County’s Ordinance Code and Board Policies, first proposed in April 2022 by Supervisor Simitian, sought to bring the County’s “Information Practices and Individual Privacy” Ordinance and other County policies up to 21st century standards, amid ever-evolving privacy regulations and technological advancements.

The County is responsible for a number of activities that require the collection and storage of sensitive information about its two million residents. Those activities include running hospitals and jails, administering elections, collecting taxes, maintaining lists of property ownership and providing social services, among many others. At the same time, the County continually acquires new technologies and implements new systems that analyze, parse, or leverage that data in new ways, while hackers and criminals develop new tools to access information they shouldn’t.

In light of recent Supreme Court decisions and actions by some states, one of the many pressing privacy concerns today relates to the use of information regarding reproductive health care services. Division A16 of the County Code, which relates to information practices and individual privacy, was one prominent example that had not kept up with the times, as it has not been updated since it was originally introduced in 1979. That ordinance will now be repealed and replaced with language that addresses modern day concerns, including the protection of information as it relates to providing reproductive health care services in the State of California.  

Simitian said, “The fact that our existing privacy protection ordinance was more than 40 years old really left me shaking my head. Back in 1979 Jimmy Carter was President, gas was less than a dollar a gallon and disco was a thing. It seemed long past time to update our privacy protections.”

With this new ordinance the County has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting our fundamental rights. The County Ordinance Code explicitly prohibits any County department from “provid[ing] information or expend[ing] or use time, money, facilities, property, equipment, personnel, or other resources in furtherance of any investigation…by another governmental entity that seeks to impose civil or criminal liability…for: (1) The provision, securing, receiving of, or any inquiry concerning reproductive health care services that are legal in the State of California; or (2) Any assistance given to any person or entity that relates to the provision, securing, receiving of, or any inquiry concerning reproductive health care services that are legal in the State of California.”

In addition to the new Ordinance Code, the Board also approved an update to its Board Policies explicitly detailing the work of the County’s innovative Privacy Office. The Privacy Office, established in 2017 at Simitian’s urging, is a cutting-edge department that is among the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. Its duties include, but are not limited to, collaborating with departments across the organization to protect the personal information of its residents, promoting a privacy-protective culture within the County administration, and ensuring compliance with County policies and local, state, and federal privacy laws.

Additionally, recognizing the ever-increasing importance of privacy in the modern world, the new Board Policy establishes the Privacy Office as an in-house team of experts on privacy, technology policy, and related issues, tasked with providing recommendations to the Board of Supervisors such topics as data security, data sharing, surveillance technology, facial recognition, and algorithmic information processing.

Simitian also brought forward another information security-related proposal to address concerns expressed recently by his constituents.  “My office has received reports from constituents who say that they have been asked to submit documents like social security cards, driver’s licenses, and marriage certificates via unencrypted email,” said Simitian in making the proposal. “At the risk of stating the obvious, that is clearly not a best practice.”

Apart from the County hospital system (which is covered by HIPAA, the federally mandated Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), there is no centralized system within the County that allows constituents to securely provide this information to various County departments. County Administration will return to the Board in October with options for next steps in creating or acquiring this kind of system.

As an advocate for privacy protections during his 12-year tenure in the California Legislature, Simitian authored more than a dozen successful privacy-related pieces of legislation which became law. He also served as Chair of the Select Committee on Privacy in both the California State Assembly and the California State Senate.

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