Enhancing Privacy through Responsible Data Stewardship

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As the world celebrates Data Privacy Day today, we should collectively explore how to enhance privacy in an era where sharing is abundant and increasingly necessary to provide customers with the many cutting edge innovations they desire.

The Pew Research Internet Project recently published a thoughtful report assessing the Future of Privacy.  A foundational conclusion within the Report, contributed by researcher Stowe Boyd, is that social life is rapidly changing in the digital age, with a shifting boundary between being public and being private, where publicity is emerging as the “default modality.”  In light of this reality, the Report also recognizes that data responsibility and trust are now more important than ever.

There is little doubt about the beneficial and transformative outcomes of data, analytics and data-driven innovation.  In our 2013 white paper, SIIA explained that data is the fuel of the digital era, and data-driven innovation the engine of digital commerce and economic growth.  The McKinsey Global Institute has projected that widespread use of big data analytics could increase annual GDP in retail and manufacturing by up to $325 billion in 2020, and produce up to $285 billion in productivity gains in health care and government services, totaling $610 billion annually.

While most expectations around big data are focused on the private sector, Data-driven innovation is also increasingly critical for governments to improve the lives of citizens.  Today, in cities around the United States, citizens can log on to integrated government websites to learn about neighborhood school performance and hospital wait times; and use that information to make important personal decisions, such as where they choose to move and where they seek treatment in an emergency. And, real-time weather forecasts, transit information, and health alerts, generated entirely from government data—often through commercial smartphone applications—are just a few among many examples that further improve people’s quality of life.

A fundamental element of privacy is trust—an understanding that those who you are sharing with will honor your expectations, protect your sensitive data and use it in a responsible way that you would expect.  Therefore, for data-driven innovation to be successful, both private entities and governments must be committed to responsible data stewardship.   Research has shown that customers who have significant trust in an entity actually expect that entity to apply their data in ways that will benefit them.

Privacy by Design, the practice of embedding privacy considerations into new technologies and business practices right from the outset, is a critical component of responsible data stewardship.  Organizational policies that govern information collection, management and application of data, are also critical because they can provide for responsible data management, while retaining the flexibility to meet various—evolving—legal, social and cultural requirements and expectations around the world.

When considering a policy regime to govern privacy in the era of big data, policymakers should continue to encourage businesses to be trusted data stewards by being open and honest about how they collect, use and share personal information, and to clearly communicate any available privacy and security controls. For instance, Research has concluded that in many cases, de-identification can maximize both privacy and data quality, thereby enabling a shift from zero-sum to positive-sum thinking — a key principle of Privacy by Design.

Whether referred to as responsible data stewardship or information accountability, establishing a sense of trust and fairness is critical for data-driven innovation that maximizes social innovation and economic growth, and balances this with the appropriate level of privacy.  Herein is the most important theme of Data Privacy Day:  if consumers lack trust, they feel their data is being used unfairly or is not adequately safeguarded; the opportunities for transformative consumer benefit are simply not possible over the long term.

David David LeDuc is Senior Director, Public Policy at SIIA. He focuses on e-commerce, privacy, cyber security, cloud computing, open standards, e-government and information policy. Follow the SIIA public policy team on Twitter at @SIIAPolicy.