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November 10, 2003

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PALO ALTO – Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) today was named by Scientific American magazine as one of the “Scientific American 50” – the noted magazine’s annual list recognizing outstanding leadership in science and technology from the past year.  Simitian was the only elected official in the country to be so honored.

Simitian was recognized for his groundbreaking legislation on electronic identity theft, Assembly Bill 700. AB 700 requires businesses and state agencies that collect information from California residents to notify these residents if their personal information, such as their name, social security number, driver’s license number, or bank account data, has been compromised by an electronic security breach. “The goal,” said Simitian, “is to give consumers the information they need to protect themselves if their personal information has been compromised.” AB 700 was signed by Governor Davis in 2002 and went into effect on July 1, 2003.

“Clearly,” said Simitian, “consumers can’t protect themselves if they never know they’re at risk. Moreover,” notes Simitian, “these new obligations provide an incentive for companies holding such data to improve their security on the public’s behalf.”

“It’s a surprise and an honor to be included in the Scientific American 50,” said Simitian, a Silicon Valley legislator, who chairs the California Assembly’s Select Committee on Privacy. “Consumer privacy issues are particularly challenging when technology advances in ways that change the dynamics of business interactions and expectations.”

The rapid pace and increased scope of business communication, facilitated by the Internet, data storage, and networking technologies, has put electronic identity theft at the forefront of consumer privacy protection. As interest in the national implications of the legislation has grown, a similar law is being pursued at the federal level by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“Assemblyman Simitian’s work on AB 700 at the State level has been tremendously important for pushing the same consumer protections nationally. California has always been a leader—not just in science and technology—but for understanding the responsibility that goes with these breakthroughs and advancements,” said U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. “I hope we can achieve that same understanding at the federal level.”

Governor Gray Davis said that, “Assemblymember Simitian’s legislation has helped put California at the forefront of privacy protection. This is well deserved recognition.”

Said Scientific American Editor-In-Chief John Rennie: “Scientific American is in the business of encouraging the progressive use of technology to make a better future for people around the world. Every year we watch how certain individuals and organizations play pivotal roles in directing that future’s emergence. I think Assemblyman Simitian has done that with the passage of his legislation.”

The Scientific American 50 appears in the magazine’s December issue, arriving on newsstands November 25. Selected by the magazine’s Board of Editors with the help of distinguished outside advisors, the Scientific American 50 spotlights research, business and policy leadership in science and technology.

Simitian’s recognition came in the “Privacy & Security” category for his policy leadership on issues related to online identity theft.  He was the only U.S. elected official included on this year’s list, and one of just two elected officials worldwide (the other was London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was recognized for his efforts to reduce traffic congestion and fund public transit in the City of London).  Simitian shared his recognition with former State Senator Steve Peace, who drafted a companion measure in collaboration with Simitian.

The 2003 Scientific American 50 is an eclectic mix and includes, in addition to Simitian: CEOs like Apple’s Steve Jobs; policy leaders like Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Secretary General of the UN’s World Health Organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; companies like Intel, Genentech and Daimler-Chrysler; and research scientists like Professor Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute and Professor Charles Lieber at Harvard University.

Simple Ideas, Complex Challenges

Simitian says that his legislation in the area of online privacy tends to involve “simple ideas that pose complex challenges.”  AB 700, he notes, is based on the simple notion that “consumers are entitled to know when their personal information has been compromised; and that the folks who hold your data should be obligated to tell you when their security has been breached.”  Other Simitian bills dealing with online privacy fit the same pattern.

Earlier this year, Simitian’s Assembly Bill 68, The Online Privacy Protection Act, was also signed into law.  “Again,” said Simitian, “the underlying notion is simple. AB 68 simply requires that a company collecting personal information online for commercial purposes post a privacy policy and comply with it. That’s it.”

Still pending in the Legislature is AB 1143, which is designed to protect California Internet users’ personal privacy and anonymous free speech.  AB 1143 requires that before an online user’s privacy can be compromised by use of a civil subpoena, the user must be notified and given an opportunity to object. 

The measure has passed the State Assembly, and Simitian hopes to secure Senate approval early next year.