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Achieving the proper balance between business needs, data privacy and convenience

Data Privacy - with Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Smart phones. Smart TVs. Smart toilet seats (yes that is a thing!). Let's face it, smart technology surrounds us. It has become a de facto part of our everyday lives. The Internet of Things is growing at breakneck speeds. No matter which analyst you read, the growth predictions are staggering. Gartner predicts that we will hit over 20 billion (with a B) devices by 2020. IHS predicts even larger numbers, with 30 billion by 2020, and over 75 billion devices by 2025. No matter what, that's a lot of devices. A lot of the devices will be with us, on us, in our homes. All of them will be collecting information, sending large amounts of data up into the cloud. Many times without us even being aware of it.

A wonderful convenience, but...what is the tradeoff
My son recently forwarded me an article in the National Law Review (as point of explanation, he is a 1st year law student) that I thought was a great example of the challenge. The article was discussing a recent court case settlement Vizio made regarding their Smart TVs. Vizio had built in a feature called ‘smart interactivity.' Based on what you were watching, it would make recommendations. Seems simple enough and, obviously, a great convenience to the consumer. What it was doing under the covers was significantly more. The software coupled the viewing information with other IP addresses in the household, correlating that activity with the viewing information. Additionally, they coupled this with various demographics on the household. What got them in trouble was, they were then selling this data, and had not disclosed to the consumer that they were collecting it.

Privacy vs the world
A little over a year ago, I attended a session at a Gartner Symposium entitled ‘Privacy vs the World' presented by Heidi Wachs, a research director at Gartner. She presented many examples of data privacy concerns. She raised the point that ‘the lines between social culture, corporate culture and regulation are blurred when it comes to privacy.' She asked the attendees ‘How can organizations truly define privacy so that it is appropriately preserved?' The discussion revolved around the constant struggle and balancing of the business needs, convenience, and addressing the privacy and security concerns of the users of the system. As many of you know, one of my favorite sayings is ‘Everything is a tradeoff.' The phrase was never truer than in our new world of constant technology disruption, where new uses, devices and the data that is being collected appear at breakneck speeds. Sometimes before we even understand the implications and tradeoffs involved.

The European Union is working very hard to get ahead of the curve on the privacy challenges. The law, called the General Data Protection Regulation, was passed last year, and is considered one of the toughest privacy laws to be implemented to date. At the core, the law will allow Europeans "...to tell companies to stop profiling them, they'll have much greater control over what happens to their data, and they'll find it easier to launch complaints about the misuse of their information." The explosive growth and volume of personal data being collected is going to present challenges for everyone.

With great power comes great responsibility
As technologists, we have a responsibility to help the business understand the tradeoffs and risks involved in this rapidly changing environment. We as humans, by nature, love to hoard things, and data is no different. The Internet of Things is allowing us to accumulating large amounts of data as it passes through our systems. If it is in or passes through your system, you have a responsibility for ensuring the rules are followed. What level of privacy is needed / required / desired is fully dependent on the data itself. Not all data is created equal; some requires more privacy than others. Privacy and the security mechanisms needed to implement that privacy is not a once-and-done kind of thing; it's constantly evolving and changing. Heidi asked a challenging question in the session I mentioned earlier. ‘When a law enforcement agency comes asking for all that data you have been hoarding, what will you do?' Better to be proactive and plan ahead than reactive when the situation occurs.

Some recent news stories reinforce Heidi's question:

  • An Ohio man was a suspect in a recent arson and insurance fraud case. The police got a warrant to retrieve his pacemaker data history for that day to refute his story. ‘A cardiologist who reviewed the data said that it was "highly improbable" that Compton had carried out all of the activity he described to police the night of the fire.'
  • In Arkansas, data from a smart water meter was used as evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for murder.

Accepting the challenge and striking the balance
In this fast-paced, rapidly changing technology environment we live in today, we are providing and collecting huge amounts of data from an ever-increasing number of potential sources, whether they be mobiles, wearables, our vehicles, or any other of a myriad of sources we haven't even thought about. This data is traveling through the nebulous cloud environment we all love to talk about, and traveling through the ether to its final destination. Our challenge as technologists is to understand the implications, challenges, and tradeoffs involved in that world, and be able to articulate those to the business so that the proper balance between business needs, data privacy, convenience, et al, can be achieved.

About Ed Featherston
Ed Featherston is VP, Principal Architect at Cloud Technology Partners. He brings 35 years of technology experience in designing, building, and implementing large complex solutions. He has significant expertise in systems integration, Internet/intranet, and cloud technologies. He has delivered projects in various industries, including financial services, pharmacy, government and retail.

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