The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018: a deep dive

by Sebastian Benthall

I have given the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 a close read.

In summary, the act grants consumers a right to request that businesses disclose the categories of information about them that it collects and sells, and gives consumers the right to businesses to delete their information and opt out of sale.

What follows are points I found particularly interesting. Quotations from the Act (that’s what I’ll call it) will be in bold. Questions (meaning, questions that I don’t have an answer to at the time of writing) will be in italics.

Privacy rights

SEC. 2. The Legislature finds and declares that:
(a) In 1972, California voters amended the California Constitution to include the right of privacy among the “inalienable” rights of all people. …

I did not know that. I was under the impression that in the United States, the ‘right to privacy’ was a matter of legal interpretation, derived from other more explicitly protected rights. A right to privacy is enumerated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. There’s something like a right to privacy in Article 8 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. California appears to have followed their lead on this.

In several places in the Act, it specifies that exceptions may be made in order to be compliant with federal law. Is there an ideological or legal disconnect between privacy in California and privacy nationally? Consider the Snowden/Schrems/Privacy Shield issue: exchanges of European data to the United States are given protections from federal surveillance practices. This presumably means that the U.S. federal government agrees to respect EU privacy rights. Can California negotiate for such treatment from the U.S. government?

These are the rights specifically granted by the Act:

[SEC. 2.] (i) Therefore, it is the intent of the Legislature to further Californians’ right to privacy by giving consumers an effective way to control their personal information, by ensuring the following rights:

(1) The right of Californians to know what personal information is being collected about them.

(2) The right of Californians to know whether their personal information is sold or disclosed and to whom.

(3) The right of Californians to say no to the sale of personal information.

(4) The right of Californians to access their personal information.

(5) The right of Californians to equal service and price, even if they exercise their privacy rights.

It has been only recently that I’ve been attuned to the idea of privacy rights. Perhaps this is because I am from a place that apparently does not have them. A comparison that I believe should be made more often is the comparison of privacy rights to property rights. Clearly privacy rights have become as economically relevant as property rights. But currently, property rights enjoy a widespread acceptance and enforcement that privacy rights do not.

Personal information defined through example categories

“Information” is a notoriously difficult thing to define. The Act gets around the problem of defining “personal information” by repeatedly providing many examples of it. The examples are themselves rather abstract and are implicitly “categories” of personal information. Categorization of personal information is important to the law because under several conditions businesses must disclose the categories of personal information collected, sold, etc. to consumers.

SEC. 2. (e) Many businesses collect personal information from California consumers. They may know where a consumer lives and how many children a consumer has, how fast a consumer drives, a consumer’s personality, sleep habits, biometric and health information, financial information, precise geolocation information, and social networks, to name a few categories.

[1798.140.] (o) (1) “Personal information” means information that identifies, relates to, describes, is capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer or household. Personal information includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(A) Identifiers such as a real name, alias, postal address, unique personal identifier, online identifier Internet Protocol address, email address, account name, social security number, driver’s license number, passport number, or other similar identifiers.

(B) Any categories of personal information described in subdivision (e) of Section 1798.80.

(C) Characteristics of protected classifications under California or federal law.

(D) Commercial information, including records of personal property, products or services purchased, obtained, or considered, or other purchasing or consuming histories or tendencies.

Note that protected classifications (1798.140.(o)(1)(C)) includes race, which is socially constructed category (see Omi and Winant on racial formation). The Act appears to be saying that personal information includes the race of the consumer. Contrast this with information as identifiers (see 1798.140.(o)(1)(A)) and information as records (1798.140.(o)(1)(D)). So “personal information” in one case is the property of a person (and a socially constructed one at that); in another case it is the specific syntactic form; in another case it is a document representing some past action. The Act is very ontologically confused.

Other categories of personal information include (continuing this last section):


(E) Biometric information.

(F) Internet or other electronic network activity information, including, but not limited to, browsing history, search history, and information regarding a consumer’s interaction with an Internet Web site, application, or advertisement.

Devices and Internet activity will be discussed in more depth in the next section.


(G) Geolocation data.

(H) Audio, electronic, visual, thermal, olfactory, or similar information.

(I) Professional or employment-related information.

(J) Education information, defined as information that is not publicly available personally identifiable information as defined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. section 1232g, 34 C.F.R. Part 99).

(K) Inferences drawn from any of the information identified in this subdivision to create a profile about a consumer reflecting the consumer’s preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, preferences, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes.

Given that the main use of information is to support inferences, it is notable that inferences are dealt with here as a special category of information, and that sensitive inferences are those that pertain to behavior and psychology. This may be narrowly interpreted to exclude some kinds of inferences that may be relevant and valuable but not so immediately recognizable as ‘personal’. For example, one could infer from personal information the ‘position’ of a person in an arbitrary multi-dimensional space that compresses everything known about a consumer, and use this representation for targeted interventions (such as advertising). Or one could interpret it broadly: since almost all personal information is relevant to ‘behavior’ in a broad sense, and inference from it is also ‘about behavior’, and therefore protected.

Device behavior

The Act focuses on the rights of consumers and deals somewhat awkwardly with the fact that most information collected about consumers is done indirectly through machines. The Act acknowledges that sometimes devices are used by more than one person (for example, when they are used by a family), but it does not deal easily with other forms of sharing arrangements (i.e., an open Wifi hotspot) and the problems associated with identifying which person a particular device’s activity is “about”.

[1798.140.] (g) “Consumer” means a natural person who is a California resident, as defined in Section 17014 of Title 18 of the California Code of Regulations, as that section read on September 1, 2017, however identified, including by any unique identifier. [SB: italics mine.]

[1798.140.] (x) “Unique identifier” or “Unique personal identifier” means a persistent identifier that can be used to recognize a consumer, a family, or a device that is linked to a consumer or family, over time and across different services, including, but not limited to, a device identifier; an Internet Protocol address; cookies, beacons, pixel tags, mobile ad identifiers, or similar technology; customer number, unique pseudonym, or user alias; telephone numbers, or other forms of persistent or probabilistic identifiers that can be used to identify a particular consumer or device. For purposes of this subdivision, “family” means a custodial parent or guardian and any minor children over which the parent or guardian has custody.

Suppose you are a business that collects traffic information and website behavior connected to IP addresses, but you don’t go through the effort of identifying the ‘consumer’ who is doing the behavior. In fact, you may collect a lot of traffic behavior that is not connected to any particular ‘consumer’ at all, but is rather the activity of a bot or crawler operated by a business. Are you on the hook to disclose personal information to consumers if they ask for their traffic activity? If they do, or if they do not, provide their IP address?

Incidentally, while the Act seems comfortable defining a Consumer as a natural person identified by a machine address, it also happily defines a Person as “proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, syndicate, business trust, company, corporation, …” etc. in addition to “an individual”. Note that “personal information” is specifically information about a consumer, not a Person (i.e., business).

This may make you wonder what a Business is, since these are the entities that are bound by the Act.

Businesses and California

The Act mainly details the rights that consumers have with respect to businesses that collect, sell, or lose their information. But what is a business?

[1798.140.] (c) “Business” means:
(1) A sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, corporation, association, or other legal entity that is organized or operated for the profit or financial benefit of its shareholders or other owners, that collects consumers’ personal information, or on the behalf of which such information is collected and that alone, or jointly with others, determines the purposes and means of the processing of consumers’ personal information, that does business in the State of California, and that satisfies one or more of the following thresholds:

(A) Has annual gross revenues in excess of twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000), as adjusted pursuant to paragraph (5) of subdivision (a) of Section 1798.185.

(B) Alone or in combination, annually buys, receives for the business’ commercial purposes, sells, or shares for commercial purposes, alone or in combination, the personal information of 50,000 or more consumers, households, or devices.

(C) Derives 50 percent or more of its annual revenues from selling consumers’ personal information.

This is not a generic definition of a business, just as the earlier definition of ‘consumer’ is not a generic definition of consumer. This definition of ‘business’ is a sui generis definition for the purposes of consumer privacy protection, as it defines businesses in terms of their collection and use of personal information. The definition explicitly thresholds the applicability of the law to businesses over certain limits.

There does appear to be a lot of wiggle room and potential for abuse here. Consider: the Mirai botnet had by one estimate 2.5 million devices compromised. Say you are a small business that collects site traffic. Suppose the Mirai botnet targets your site with a DDOS attack. Suddenly, your business collects information of millions of devices, and the Act comes into effect. Now you are liable for disclosing consumer information. Is that right?

An alternative reading of this section would recall that the definition (!) of consumer, in this law, is a California resident. So maybe the thresholds in 1798.140.(c)(B) and 1798.140.(c)(C) refer specifically to Californian consumers. Of course, for any particular device, information about where that device’s owner lives is personal information.

Having 50,000 California customers or users is a decent threshold for defining whether or not a business “does business in California”. Given the size and demographics of California, you would expect that many of the, just for example, major Chinese technology companies like Tencent to have 50,000 Californian users. This brings up the question of extraterritorial enforcement, which gave the GDPR so much leverage.

Extraterritoriality and financing

In a nutshell, it looks like the Act is intended to allow Californians to sue foreign companies. How big a deal is this? The penalties for noncompliance are civil penalties and a price per violation (presumably individual violation), not a ratio of profit, but you could imagine them adding up:

[1798.155.] (b) Notwithstanding Section 17206 of the Business and Professions Code, any person, business, or service provider that intentionally violates this title may be liable for a civil penalty of up to seven thousand five hundred dollars ($7,500) for each violation.

(c) Notwithstanding Section 17206 of the Business and Professions Code, any civil penalty assessed pursuant to Section 17206 for a violation of this title, and the proceeds of any settlement of an action brought pursuant to subdivision (a), shall be allocated as follows:

(1) Twenty percent to the Consumer Privacy Fund, created within the General Fund pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 1798.109, with the intent to fully offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title.

(2) Eighty percent to the jurisdiction on whose behalf the action leading to the civil penalty was brought.

(d) It is the intent of the Legislature that the percentages specified in subdivision (c) be adjusted as necessary to ensure that any civil penalties assessed for a violation of this title fully offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title, including a sufficient amount to cover any deficit from a prior fiscal year.

1798.160. (a) A special fund to be known as the “Consumer Privacy Fund” is hereby created within the General Fund in the State Treasury, and is available upon appropriation by the Legislature to offset any costs incurred by the state courts in connection with actions brought to enforce this title and any costs incurred by the Attorney General in carrying out the Attorney General’s duties under this title.

(b) Funds transferred to the Consumer Privacy Fund shall be used exclusively to offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title. These funds shall not be subject to appropriation or transfer by the Legislature for any other purpose, unless the Director of Finance determines that the funds are in excess of the funding needed to fully offset the costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title, in which case the Legislature may appropriate excess funds for other purposes.

So, just to be concrete: suppose a business collects personal information on 50,000 Californians and does not disclose that information. California could then sue that business for $7,500 * 50,000 = $375 million in civil penalties, that then goes into the Consumer Privacy Fund, whose purpose is to cover the cost of further lawsuits. The process funds itself. If it makes any extra money, it can be appropriated for other things.

Meaning, I guess this Act basically sustains a very sustained bunch of investigations and fines. You could imagine that this starts out with just some lawyers responding to civil complaints. But consider the scope of the Act, and how it means that any business in the world not properly disclosing information about Californians is liable to be fined. Suppose that some kind of blockchain or botnet based entity starts committing surveillance in violation of this act on a large scale. What kinds of technical investigative capacity is necessary to enforce this kind of thing worldwide? Does this become a self-funding cybercrime investigative unit? How are foreign actors who are responsible for such things brought to justice?

This is where it’s totally clear that I am not a lawyer. I am still puzzling over the meaning of [1798.155.(c)(2), for example.

“Publicly available information”

There are more weird quirks to this Act than I can dig into in this post, but one that deserves mention (as homage to Helen Nissenbaum, among other reasons) is the stipulation about publicly available information, which does not mean what you think it means:

(2) “Personal information” does not include publicly available information. For these purposes, “publicly available” means information that is lawfully made available from federal, state, or local government records, if any conditions associated with such information. “Publicly available” does not mean biometric information collected by a business about a consumer without the consumer’s knowledge. Information is not “publicly available” if that data is used for a purpose that is not compatible with the purpose for which the data is maintained and made available in the government records or for which it is publicly maintained. “Publicly available” does not include consumer information that is deidentified or aggregate consumer information.

The grammatical error in the second sentence (the phrase beginning with “if any conditions” trails off into nowhere…) indicates that this paragraph was hastily written and never finished, as if in response to an afterthought. There’s a lot going on here.

First, the sense of ‘public’ used here is the sense of ‘public institutions’ or the res publica. Amazingly and a bit implausibly, government records are considered publicly available only when they are used for purposes compatible with their maintenance. So if a business takes a public record and uses it differently that it was originally intended when it was ‘made available’, it becomes personal information that must be disclosed? As somebody who came out of the Open Data movement, I have to admit I find this baffling. On the other hand, it may be the brilliant solution to privacy in public on the Internet that society has been looking for.

Second, the stipulation that “publicly available” does not mean biometric information collected by a business about a consumer without the consumer’s knowledge” is surprising. It appears to be written with particular cases in mind–perhaps IoT sensing. But why specifically biometric information, as opposed to other kinds of information collected without consumer knowledge?

There is a lot going on in this paragraph. Oddly, it is not one of the ones explicitly flagged for review and revision in the section of soliciting public participation on changes before the Act goes into effect on 2020.

A work in progress

1798.185. (a) On or before January 1, 2020, the Attorney General shall solicit broad public participation to adopt regulations to further the purposes of this title, including, but not limited to, the following areas:

This is a weird law. I suppose it was written and passed to capitalize on a particular political moment and crisis (Sec. 2 specifically mentions Cambridge Analytica as a motivation), drafted to best express its purpose and intent, and given the horizon of 2020 to allow for revisions.

It must be said that there’s nothing in this Act that threatens the business models of any American Big Tech companies in any way, since storing consumer information in order to provide derivative ad targeting services is totally fine as long as businesses do the right disclosures, which they are now all doing because of GDPR anyway. There is a sense that this is California taking the opportunity to start the conversation about what U.S. data protection law post-GDPR will be like, which is of course commendable. As a statement of intent, it is great. Where it starts to get funky is in the definitions of its key terms and the underlying theory of privacy behind them. We can anticipate some rockiness there and try to unpack these assumptions before adopting similar policies in other states.

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