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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 — 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."

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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