In ‘Parks and Recreation,’ a vision for the future of consumer data privacy issues  

On a sunny morning in Pawnee, Indiana, a notification pops up on Leslie Knope’s phone: “Open Your Door.” Looking outside, she finds a drone at her doorstep, floating effortlessly, cradling a box addressed to her.

“Hey, Leslie Knope!” it chimes as it drops its cargo.

People have only been able to use drones for recreational, research or government purposes in the U.S., but the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed rules that would expand drones for any use, especially for commercial purposes. Yet the final season of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” set in a not-too-distant 2017, envisions a world in which your internet provider can listen to your every conversation, read every email and text, and use that information to predict your mood and deliver packages to your door. The offending company is Grizzyl, a bubbly, gleefully 21st century Internet and cell phone provider that shamelessly violates its customers’ privacy.

For ardent libertarian Ron Swanson, who destroys a drone and brings it to Leslie, (“This is a flying robot that I just shot out of the sky when it tried to deliver me a package”), the threat of such technology is philosophically horrifying, bringing him together with the liberal Knope to try to stop the behavior. While he originally blames others for making themselves vulnerable to that kind of invasion, he later changes his tune when his own privacy is threatened outside of his control.

For liberal Knope, the concern is more universal, with the actions of a corporation infringing upon its customers rights concerning from a populist perspective. As in many episodes, she sees the government serving as an activist voice, protecting its citizens from harm from an ill-intentioned private company.

By placing characters only two years from now, the show’s creators envisioned a future that’s within our reach. In the show’s view, the future has troubling implications for consumers, with sophisticated technology making it easier than ever for companies to pry into their user’s lives.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of technologies and actions made by Grizzyl. With their predictions of a soon-to-be future in mind, we examine the likelihood of each event coming true, and the current legal structures that govern them.

Use of commercial drones

In the show: After listening to its users phone calls, Grizzyl gathers its customers’ personal desires and sends them gifts they think they’ll appreciate via drone. While Donna receives two honey bears and boxes of sugarplums, coincidentally the pet names she and her fiancé use for each other, the characters on the show catch on to Grizzyl’s unethical business practices.

Today’s laws: Americans have very few options allowing them to use drones for commercial purposes. Companies may apply to the Federal Aviation Administration to authorize use of drones on a case-by-case basis. However, no existing legal framework allows for the widespread adoption of drones on a commercial basis, and the FAA describes its approach to the emerging technology as “incremental,” suggesting that you won’t see pizza-delivering drones anytime soon. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 aimed to integrate unmanned aircraft by this year, but a recent government audit found that the FAA wouldn’t meet its September deadline. “There should be an eye toward integrating drones into our national airspace,” Peter Sachs, a lawyer specializing in drone law, said about these proposed regulations.

Tomorrow’s technology: When online retailer behemoth Amazon announced “Amazon Prime Air” last year, it seemed like an elaborate April Fool’s prank. Yet the company is dead serious about using the technology to deliver packages in as little as 30 minutes, sending the FAA a letter pushing for greater reforms. While Amazon predicts that drone deliveries will eventually be “as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” time will tell when their vision becomes a reality. However, with the FAA’s proposed regulations, drone operators would be required to stay within “eyesight” of their craft, according to Sachs. With this stipulation, it would be near impossible for vendors to use drones for deliveries.

Consumer data mining

In the show: After the characters receive individualized gift packages delivered by drone from Grizzyl, they quickly realize the only way they would have learned this information about them is through monitoring their calls and texts. Later, when Leslie visits the Grizzyl headquarters in disguise, the Grizzyl vice president of “Cool New Shiz” reveals he knew who she was all along by tracking her location from her phone. He says his company may know Leslie better than she knows herself. He tells her, “There’s nothing scary about Grizzyl. We just want to learn everything about everyone, track wherever they go and even what they’re about to do.”

Today’s laws: Despite the growing fascination with consumer privacy and cybersecurity in recent years, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s program to gather millions of Americans’ phone and email records, no laws have yet to intensely regulate the act of consumer data mining. In Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., the Supreme Court found that a Vermont statute that restricted the sale, disclosure and use of records that revealed the prescribing practices of individual doctors violated the First Amendment rights of data mining companies hired by pharmaceutical manufacturers. In a powerful feature story for Time Magazine in 2011, author Joel Stein sums up the current state of data mining for consumers: He contacts a range of private companies that gather information about him “in stealth,” creating a detailed picture of his life that’s been culled without his knowing.

Tomorrow’s technology: Though the debate about gathering and use data has typically been about government surveillance of private exchanges, companies such as Google, which could be seen as the real-life Grizzyl, already monitor emails sent over their Gmail network in order to tailor advertisements shown to particular Internet users. As Stein’s 2011 feature shows, companies already have an incredible ability to gather people’s information, something that will likely continue to grow unless Congress passes legislation limiting it.

Consumer agreements

In the show: When Leslie Knope discovers the data mining, she brings a lawsuit against Grizzyl. Leslie’s husband Ben argues that the agreement giving Pawnee free WiFi explicitly banned data mining. However, the company was able to sneak a clause “into the 27th update of a 500 page user agreement,” allowing them to monitor all communications sent over the network through Grizzyl products. As Ben said, “a person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multi-billion dollar company,” a sentiment oft repeated in today’s on-the-grid society. Ben compelled Grizzyl to be “upfront about what you’re doing and allow people the ability to opt out.”

Today’s laws: According to Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the U.S. has little protection for consumers against how a private company constructs its consumer agreements. A report released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent government agency formed by the 2011 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, showed that consumers often hand over their rights in consumer agreements without realizing it. They found that in 92 percent of credit card disputes that went to arbitration, consumers had signed contracts precluding their ability to sue without realizing it. In effect, even the savviest consumer, like Ben Wyatt, can be thwarted by a legal document that buries its most damaging clauses under pages of legal jargon, something that’s become commonplace in our society.

Tomorrow’s technology: When consumers sign these consumer agreements, they may unknowingly give up their right to sue, effectively stripping themselves of their right to take these corporations to trial in the event of an injustice. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has championed the Arbitration Fairness Act, which works to “restore the rights of workers and consumers” in assuring them of transparency in civil litigation and prohibiting the usage of forced arbitration clauses in consumer agreements. While the bill has unsuccessfully been introduced in Congress since 2011, Franken plans on reintroducing it during this session.


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