Consumer Privacy: The Balancing Act of the Information Age

by Michael Misasi 0

The world has entered the information age,and there is no turning back. Mobile banking, social media, “thecloud,” and personally identifiable information (PII) were some ofthe most prevalent topics of discussion at this year’s IAPP GlobalPrivacy Summit. Formal presentations and casual discussions bothcalled attention to the fact that technology will continue tofoster the dissemination and analysis of data whether we like it ornot. For those of you who value privacy, there is good news. As asociety we get to choose how technological innovation should beallowed to alter how we think about privacy.

Conferences like the National Privacy Summit play a vital role inthis process. Not only do they increase awareness of the mostrelevant privacy issues, but they bring together professionals froma variety of industries and backgrounds to debate what action needsto be taken.

For those of you who have never heard of “privacy professionals,”they take on the task of analyzing the technological risks toprivacy and the steps that should be taken to preserve it. Afterlistening to and talking with a number of them at last week’sconference, here is what I took away:

Without a doubt, privacy is a dynamic issue and professionals andregulators should resist the temptation to use language that mayobscure this fact. Thinking of information as public or private,anonymous or personally identifiable promotes a dichotomy thatconflicts with the nature of privacy.

Consumers are best served when policy makers understand privacy asfalling on a spectrum; its relative position often determined inpart by feelings, cultural backgrounds, and the degree to which anindividual is aware of relevant risks. The privacy debate isfurther complicated when these personal attitudes come into contactwith other issues including economic interests and nationalsecurity.

In this context privacy finds a balance between:

  1. The Individual and the state
  2. The consumer and business, and
  3. The societal benefits of sharing and an individual’s right toprivacy.

Lastly, privacy professionals, whether lawyers, executives, orregulators, must find a way to express the conclusions of theiranalysis in a way that respects both the complexity of the issue athand and a need for effective communication. As a speaker at thisyear’s conference pointed out, what is said (even if it iscorrect), is not always what is heard. End user license agreements(EULAs) and privacy policies compromise a consumer’s risk awarenesswhen they become too long or too complicated to read.

Privacy is growing into a profession in its own right, andregulators and corporate officers are taking notice. Over 2,000professionals attended the Summit this year, making it the largestin the IAPP’s history and the largest privacy conference in theworld. New opinions, viewpoints, and perspectives are alwaysneeded, however, to support the privacy balancing act.