UW Today

April 8, 2016

UW law students lay groundwork for new state privacy office

News and Information

University of Washington law students played a key role in a law passed last week that aims to better protect privacy and monitor data collection by agencies in the state.

House Bill 2875, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee April 1, establishes the state Office of Privacy and Data Protection. The office will examine what information is being collected by state agencies, work with agencies to reduce the amount of consumer data being collected and monitor citizen complaints. It will also be required to conduct an annual privacy review and educate consumers about privacy protection.

“Data privacy, data protection and access equity are of increasing concern for all residents of the state,” the bill notes. “State agencies and programs entrusted by citizens with sensitive personal information must serve as responsible custodians of this data.”

A team of six UW students in the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic worked with the state’s chief privacy officer, Alex Alben, to survey state agencies’ practices around data collection and privacy and come up with ideas for improving them.

“Their participation was extremely valuable,” Alben said. “The group exceeded all of my expectations in terms of the high-quality work law students could do in a very short time period. I was tremendously impressed.”

The state collects data for everything from unemployment claims to driver licenses and vehicle registrations, and it stores millions of electronic records containing sensitive information. States are ramping up their focus on privacy in response to citizens’ concerns about online security and the risk of data breaches, Alben said.

“One of the core functions of our state is to render services to people, and in order to do that, we collect data from citizens,” said Alben, who will head the new state office. “As technology evolves and the amount of data is rapidly multiplying, the state has a duty to be smart about how it is managing and protecting the data that is entrusted to it.”

Alben, who has been an adjunct and guest lecturer at the UW law school, approached the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic for help with the state initiative. The students helped draft an executive order Inslee signed earlier this year that became the basis for the new law. Alben hopes to tap the clinic’s students again for a future project on statewide privacy protection for consumers.

The UW Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic was founded in 2003 to give law students opportunities to work on projects with elected officials, business owners and others in shaping policies around technology. Students have worked on yearlong projects in areas ranging from police body cameras to helping the UW develop a drone policy.

The state project, clinic director William Covington said, was a chance for students to make a significant contribution to legislation that will impact millions of Washington residents.

“The students were the arms and legs of both the executive order and the legislation,” said Covington, a UW senior law lecturer. “They were an integral part of this effort.”

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