California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris has created a new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit within her office to "hold accountable those who misuse technology and invade the privacy of others."

The move reflects a growing awareness on the part of law enforcement officials that not enough is being done to keep consumers safe or crack down on data-leaking businesses.

"In the 21st century, we share and store our most sensitive personal information on phones, computers and even the [online] cloud," she said. "It is imperative that consumers are empowered to understand how these innovations use personal information so that we can all make informed choices about what information we want to share."

California has long been at the forefront of efforts to guarantee a degree of privacy to residents and hold businesses accountable for wayward data that can lead to identity theft, online security breaches and control of consumers' personal information. The state's Constitution was amended in 1972 to include privacy as a right.

California lawmakers in 2003 approved the Online Privacy Protection Act, the first state law in the U.S. to require operators of commercial Web sites to post a link to a privacy policy from the home page. It also required disclosure of how people's personal information might be shared. Noncompliance with the law, even by companies outside the state, can result in civil penalties.

No new laws or new funds are being allocated by lawmakers as a result of the new division but, while previously only a handful of officials were able to work even part time on privacy matters, now at least a half dozen prosecutors will be committed full time to enforcing California's privacy laws.

Joanne McNabb, the former head of California's Office of Privacy Protection, will serve as the division's director of privacy education and policy.

Federal privacy laws cover several issues, such as medical records and treatment of Internet users under the age of 13. But the laws can be difficult to enforce and often are weaker than separate state rules.

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