safety online

New study finds that Texas is more at risk for cyber privacy concerns than other states

According to a new study, there's still a lot the Lone Star State needs to do to protect its citzens online. Getty Images

If Texas' standards for online privacy were graded, the Lone Star State would earn an "F," a new study indicates.

An analysis of online privacy laws in the 50 states shows Texas adheres to only five (25 percent) of the 20 privacy standards examined by pro-consumer tech research website Comparetech. Just two states surpassed the 50 percent mark ā€” California (75 percent) and Delaware (55 percent). At 5 percent, Wyoming was ranked the worst state for online privacy protection laws.

Texas did, however, have some redeeming qualities. The state has laws on the books regarding how companies dispose of consumers' data, how organizations protect data about students in kindergarten through 12th grade, how biometric data is protected, and how journalists are shielded from revealing their sources, according to Comparetech.

Ranking 23rd in the Comparetech study, Texas fell short in areas such as social media privacy, security of insurance data, third-party sharing of data, and disclosure of what types of data companies collect about consumers.

"Texas still has a long way to go in protecting its residents' privacy, particularly when it comes to how companies and government entities can collect, use, and share personal data," says Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with Comparetech.

During Texas' 2019 legislative session, one comprehensive measure aimed at tightening online privacy laws, the Texas Consumer Privacy Act, failed to reach the governor's desk.

However, lawmakers passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Texas Privacy Protection Act. This law, far less sweeping than the Texas Consumer Privacy Act, revises notification requirements under the Texas Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act, according to the Data Privacy Monitor blog. It also establishes the 15-member Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council, which will recommend future legislation tied to data privacy.

In Texas, Bischoff says, companies still "have few restrictions on how they are allowed to gather information from users, how long that data can be retained, and with whom it can be shared. Likewise, government entities like schools and law enforcement are not bound by laws that would prevent them from invading people's privacy."

He notes, however, that Texas is among only four states that protect biometric data such as fingerprints and facial-recognition scans.

Among all the states, California "sets a fairly high bar" for protection of online privacy, Bischoff says, but even it fails to meet all of the pro-privacy criteria set out in the Comparetech study.

Around the country, most people support beefing up state laws governing online privacy, he says, "but technology has outpaced legislation, so many states just need time to catch up."

Some Americans, though, doubt that any laws can safeguard their online privacy. In a 2019 survey commissioned by privacy-technology company FigLeaf Inc., 29 percent of U.S. adults said they thought it was impossible to safeguard their digital information.

"Without question, consumers are telling us that online privacy is important to them. However, far too many believe online privacy is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve," Slava Kolomeichuk, co-founder and CEO of Deerfield, Illinois-based FigLeaf, says in a news release. "This attitude is resulting in individuals who are choosing to restrict their own online activity, which limits their personal freedom. Unfortunately, current tools do not give consumers the assurance they need that it is possible to control one's own online privacy."

Control of online privacy is a serious concern for U.S. adults. In a 2019 survey by SurveyMonkey, 58 percent of adults viewed online privacy as a crisis. For Texans, this concern won't be addressed by state lawmakers until the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers aren't expected to take action this year on an online privacy bill.

U.S. Sen. Richard Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, is one of the main sponsors of the federal privacy legislation. He says Americans deserve the same online protections regardless of where in the U.S. they live or travel.

"That means internet privacy regulations should not vary across state lines," Wicker says on his website. "Not only would 50 different privacy standards leave Americans uncertain about what is being done with their data, but a patchwork of state-level interventions could also lead to uncertainty for businesses, bad internet service, and slower economic growth."
The company wants to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks." PRNewsfoto/Kodiak Robotics

The Interstate 45 freight corridor between Houston and Dallas now serves as a testing ground for self-driving cargo trucks.

Silicon Valley startup Kodiak Robotics Inc. recently began sending its autonomous 18-wheel trucks on trips between Texas' two largest metro areas, co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says. The trucks are carrying paid cargo, but Kodiak won't identify the customer or customers. The company also won't say how many trips the trucks are making each day.

The Texas initiative represents Kodiak's first foray into commercial deliveries. Wired.com notes that pretty much every player in the autonomous truck sector has conducted tests in Texas or is carrying commercial loads in the Lone Star State, which boasts more than 2,300 miles of interstate highways.

For its part, Kodiak aims to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks."

According to a 2016 report from the Texas Department of Transportation, nearly half of all truck freight in Texas goes through the I-45 corridor's 11 counties. In some spots, trucks make up more than one-fourth of the traffic in the corridor, which runs 276 miles from Galveston to where I-45 intersects with Interstate 20 in Dallas County, the TxDOT report says.

"The importance of the Iā€45 freight corridor to the movement of goods extends beyond Texas because much of the freight originating or passing through the corridor is destined to other domestic and international markets," the report says.

For now, Burnette says, two people are aboard each Kodiak truck traveling between Houston and Dallas ā€” a safety driver and a safety engineer.

"Dallas will be our home base for testing and operations for the foreseeable future," Burnette says. "Kodiak plans to continue refining and testing its trucks until the last truck-involved accident happens on public roads."

Kodiak's Dallas office, which opened in March, employs eight people. The company plans to relocate soon to new office space in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, Burnette says.

At this time, Kodiak doesn't plan to hire any workers in Houston, he says.

From its base in the Dallas area, Kodiak envisions expanding its service to routes throughout Texas, but it's focusing solely on the Houston-to-Dallas route for the time being, Burnette says.

Kodiak picked Texas for its truck tests, in part, because of the "warm welcome" extended by Gov. Greg Abbott, TxDOT, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and other segments of the public sector, he says.

In addition, Burnette says, Kodiak chose Texas "because of its great people, freight-rich economy, reasonable regulatory structure, and robust infrastructure."

In 2017, Texas enacted laws enabling driverless vehicles, including long-haul trucks, to operate on the state's roads.

"Texas is a leader in the testing and implementation of connected and automated vehicles, and Kodiak's willingness to partner with academia and public agencies to ensure safe deployment of new technology will add significant value to our transportation system," Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says in a release.

Burnette, co-founder of Otto Trucking LLC, a self-driving truck startup purchased in 2016 by Uber Technologies Inc., and fellow entrepreneur Paz Eshel established Kodiak in 2018 to "redefine" long-haul trucking through self-driving technology.

Kodiak says its autonomous technology is designed to ease pressures facing the trucking industry, including a shortage of drivers and high turnover among drivers, while improving highway safety, fostering business efficiency, reducing traffic congestion, and cutting down on harmful emissions.

"Long-haul trucking is primed for autonomous technology," Kodiak says in a post on Medium. "Highway driving is more structured and predictable than urban driving. This means there are fewer decisions for drivers to make and [it's] a better fit for autonomous vehicles."

"As hard as it is to navigate city streets, autonomous vehicles are much closer to being able to drive on more structured interstate highways, which have no jaywalking pedestrians, no aggressive cyclists, and no runaway pets," Kodiak adds. "That's why we've focused on building technology specifically for long-haul trucks driving on highway routes, often referred to as the 'middle mile.'"