Gates urges federal data privacy law

Capping his visit to the nation's capital, Microsoft's chairman speaks about importance of balancing privacy concerns with data collection.

WASHINGTON--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has added to his legislative wish list, renewing his push for Congress to pass an "all-inclusive" consumer privacy and security law by year's end.

In his keynote speech at a dinner here Wednesday hosted by the advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, Gates shifted his focus away from the calls for education and immigration changes that dominated his appearance at a morning Senate hearing.

There's a critical need for federal privacy rules that require transparency about data collection practices, grant users access to their own data and dictate what companies must do if a breach occurs, Gates told an audience of about 900 people in a cavernous ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel here.

Microsoft isn't alone in requesting federal privacy legislation. The Windows maker is allied with a number of tech titans, including eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Intel and Oracle, that have begun lobbying Congress to override what they deem a patchwork of disparate state laws.

Privacy protection requires a balancing act, Gates acknowledged. Say that a company wants to track down the culprit who installed malware on a user's machine--or, in more extreme cases, nab a terrorist. Without "some degree of information being retained," that process would be much more difficult, he said.

The key is to put in place "explicit policies about where information can be used while at the same time having enough information to track down egregious behavior," Gates said.

Among the attendees were officials from the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, a number of state attorneys general, and a handful of congressional representatives.

In a 10-minute speech delivered just before Gates' appearance, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spoke broadly about the added privacy concerns he believes technological advances have introduced.

The veteran senator also told the crowd that he plans to pursue passage of his Personal Data Privacy Act again this year. That sweeping measure would, among other things, impose fines, prison time, or both on those who intentionally conceal information related to a security breach that causes "economic damage to one or more persons."

"I don't want to stop the technologies; I want to protect our privacy," Leahy said. "I think we can do both."

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