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AG Healey sets sights on how businesses handle personal data

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Attorney General Maura Healey is setting her sights on the ways businesses handle personal data, assigning staffers to crack down on privacy violations and companies that target vulnerable consumers online.

In a speech Thursday at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Healey said companies should not use a growing body of digital information about consumers to sell deceptive products or target people with wildly different prices for common goods based on their demographic profiles or their browsing histories.

But she also praised major tech companies such as Facebook and Google for their cooperation, and added that she doesn’t want to needlessly throttle companies in Massachusetts’ growing “big data” sector.


“We are witnessing in our own backyard the growth of an exciting, forward-looking industry fueled by consumer data,” Healey said. “But its full potential cannot be achieved if consumers are not protected and respected.”

The attorney general’s new focus on consumer data practices comes amid a contentious public debate over how strongly private companies should protect personal information, prompted by the federal government’s pursuit of user data from Apple Inc. in a mass shooting investigation.

It also follows repeated high-profile hacking incidents that have compromised consumer and employee information.

Healey’s new digital data initiative includes the appointment late last year of assistant attorney general Sara Cable as the agency’s new data privacy and security director. Healey’s office also said it was increasing investigation and enforcement efforts for certain digital business practices, including deceptive advertising.

Facebook has already been asked to help. A few weeks ago, state officials noticed an entity calling itself “Student Loan Ninja” was using a Facebook page to target consumers struggling with student loan debt. Facebook shut down the page.

In a discussion forum on digital privacy after Healey’s speech, ACLU Massachusetts director Carol Rose said tech companies face a critical balancing act: aiding legitimate law enforcement activity, using consumer data ethically, and protecting people from overreaching government probes.


“I know Facebook is really powerful, but they still can’t lock me up. The government can,” Rose said.

Curt Woodward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.