Marrying Technology & Privacy

“The fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a greater danger to the privacy of the individual.” – Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the United States (1953-1969) Lopez v. United States 373 U.S. 427 (1963)

I had a conversation today that drove home one of the essential challenges of many businesses.  That challenge is in encouraging technological innovation while protecting consumer privacy.  As Earl Warren aptly pointed out in 1963, the advent and rapid evolution of technology has fundamentally changed the role of privacy in the modern world.  One can argue, and several have, that there is no privacy in the digital age.  In the late 1990s the then-CEO of Sun MicroSystems , Scott McNealy famously declared “privacy is dead, deal with it.”  But the notion that privacy is dead oversimplifies the matter.  The fact of the matter is that the definition of privacy, and the individual expectation of privacy, has evolved significantly.  That is not to suggest, of course, that individuals are at ease with the notion of large companies, or any company for that matter, sharing the information, but individuals have a far more nuanced definition of privacy than they did twenty, ten, even five years ago.

Privacy can no longer be defined as simply “the right to be let alone.”    Privacy today has not only to do with issues of being able to live one’s life as one sees fit without intrusion from authorities or overzealous paparazzi.  Today, issues of privacy revolve around the practices of collecting data, sharing data, using data, securing data, and finally disposing of data.  Additionally, privacy encompasses the ideas of notice and consent.  In addition to the transformation in the way that privacy is defined, the awareness of privacy issues today has grown significantly.  Everyone from consumers to technologists are aware of practices that might compromise the privacy of the individual.  Organizations dedicated entirely to the protection of consumer privacy have become forces to be reckoned with on a regulatory level.  Witness EPIC’s involvement in Google’s recent FTC enforcement action.  EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is active in protecting consumer privacy and in lobbying government to ensure “fair” practices on the part of business.

In this environment, it is easy to assume that technology advocates and privacy advocates are inherently and irretrievably at odds.  On the contrary, however, not only can the two work together, but it is not uncommon to find both technology and privacy being advocated by the same person.  I often find myself in this position.  One does not have choose sides in this debate.  There is room for common ground.  Working toward a common goal, which is to create technology that is trusted, privacy advocates and technology advocates can create a paradigm in which both technology and privacy can evolve.  Far from being dead, privacy is alive and well and it can be married with technology in a manner that allows consumers significant functionality while protecting their privacy.  As Michelle Dennedy, Chief Privacy Officer for McAfee, elegantly stated:

“I do not think it is hopeless.  Just as you shouldn’t ‘just get over it’ and eat Big Macs for the rest of your life, you shouldn’t just get over it, and not have good identity management, and not have good policies, and not consistently train, and try to comprehend data flows for new technologies. It is a never-ending struggle, and like life, it is going to continue until the end of interaction. So privacy is alive, and we are going to keep it alive. Whether we decide to have a healthy, robust, respectful discussion on data, or whether we decide to just let the hackers of the world have at it, and let the politicians and powerbrokers of the world steal it, that’s ours to choose or lose.”

The moral of the story here, at least to me, is that one doesn’t have to choose between technology and privacy.   Intelligent innovation can allow companies to create technologically innovative products that work to protect consumer privacy, or at the very least, products that don’t erode consumer privacy.  Privacy is not dead, but it is evolving and technologists will need to make a conscious choice to include privacy considerations in the development lifecycle.  This allows companies to continue their innovative process while earning the trust of their consumers.

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