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Congress has been holding hearings lately in an effort to decide whether to pass a new federal privacy law.

Here’s a shocker. Most Americans click the “I have read the terms and agree” button on newly acquired software, online services and apps, even though they really haven’t read them and have no idea about the terms to which they are agreeing.

Are you kidding me?

OK, I’ll admit I don’t take the time to read all that stuff, either. Or sometimes I will skim it, figuring I’ll get my lawyer to carefully look over it some day, if I ever get a lawyer.

But our inability to read the terms of service to which we so readily agree renders the requirement to ask us about it completely useless in the fight to protect privacy.

In fact, most of what we do seems useless in that fight right now. It is, as Cameron F. Kerry of the Brookings Institute said in an essay last year, like watching Lucy and Ethel try to keep up with wrapping candies on a conveyor belt.

Last week, after my eyeglass prescription changed, I spent a few idle moments toying around with finding some cheap frames online. Now all I get on every website I visit are endless ads for cheap glasses.

But it’s much more than just that. Companies hold information that, if breached or sold, could compromise your identity and your bank account. As Kerry noted, the Equifax breach affected almost 146 million Americans.

And the Cambridge Analytica scandal of a year ago laid bare our social media vulnerabilities. Anyone who used a certain app on Facebook compromised information about everyone in his or her friend network, resulting in data on 87 million Americans unwittingly being sold to the British political consulting firm.

Congress has been holding hearings lately in an effort to decide whether to pass a new federal privacy law — a scary thought considering how difficult it is to pass anything meaningful in today’s ultra-partisan Washington. The Senate Judiciary Committee held one of these just a few days ago. It became clear that if anything gets passed, it will include a provision that allows people greater control over their own data, and it would establish federal rules that supersede anything states might pass on the subject.

Some lawmakers want to let people put their names on a “do not track” list that keeps the vultures at bay, while also prohibiting companies from discriminating against them because of it. But others worry this would benefit Facebook and Google because small startups would have trouble competing with them absent the ability to track personal data. This, in turn, has led some lawmakers to say it may be time to break up those giants.

Which is the kind of discussion that could keep any potential bill from getting the bipartisan support it needs to pass.

While lawmakers grapple with that, it’s worth noting that the National Security Agency has said it wants to abandon its phone surveillance program — the one Edward Snowden made famous six years ago and that, for a time, had much of the nation in a snit, before we all moved on to the next shiny object.

" We never really had that national discussion about the location of the fuzzy line between personal privacy and national security. "

“The candle is not worth the flame,” is what one former senior intelligence official was quoted saying in the Wall Street Journal.Presumably, this means gathering tons of metadata about everything you say to your friends isn’t really helping the war on terrorism that much — something critics have long contended. Also, a law passed during the Obama administration has made it a little more difficult to gather the data.

However, it probably doesn’t mean the NSA has given up on surveillance that might make you a little squeamish.

But then, we never really had that national discussion about the location of the fuzzy line between personal privacy and national security. Nor have we really found the line between what a merchant collects about you and how helpful you might find it to receive ads and other information geared to your personal buying habits.

These are difficult 21st century questions for a consumer-driven nation governed by constitutional guarantees against government intrusion. My guess is the line falls somewhere well-short of reaching into your bank account or using your information for political purposes.

That’s more than just my guess, actually.

5 comments on this story

The reason I know you click the “agree” button without knowing whether you really agree is because the Brookings Institute just published a survey showing only 20 percent of people claim to read the terms of service most of the time.

That same survey found 80 percent saying online privacy is important to them, and 85 percent saying companies should get their approval first before using personal data.

Congress ought to consider those two things a national consensus and a good starting point for a federal privacy law.