Thursday, December 08, 2011

Privacy Needs an Iron Eyes Cody


Yes, I play in the privacy sandbox less since moving over to cloud-focused EMC, but I still have regular conversations and keep track of the major issues.

In one such recent conversation I felt compelled to preface the discussion with a disclaimer: “I am not a technologist, and I am not a lawyer, but I also don’t believe that privacy issues can be solved with technology or regulations.” A bit smug, perhaps, but it’s the truth. The major privacy issues facing businesses today have very little to do with too much or too little technology, too many or too few laws. The issues are rooted in human behavior – employees who have habits that are not privacy or security friendly, individuals who are not privacy-aware, and miscreants who don’t give a fig about your privacy or mine.

When you begin with that premise, I don’t think you have much choice but to view technology and law as tools that are part of a bigger solution to the problem rather than the pillar upon which the solution must be perched. You also have to take a long view toward arriving at anything resembling a solution.

Changing human behavior across an entire culture takes time – usually a lot of time – but with persistence, patience, and the right strategy it can be done. I think of our national attitude toward pollution as an example of a successful shift in human behavior. As a kid growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I saw the American landscape at a time when it was shockingly dirty. Trash, pollution, and urban blight were everywhere. The medians on every highway in land were garbage dumps; our rivers were open cesspools; and the sky was dark with industrial exhaust.

It didn’t happen overnight, but when we decided to do something about it, things started to change. After years of work to raise awareness of the problem, the advent of the 1970s brought about things like Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency and Iron Eyes Cody’s famous tear. As the Keep America Beautiful campaign said, “People start pollution. People can stop pollution.” Were laws passed? Of course, but laws didn’t clean up the environment and pick up the trash, nor did the millions of new trash receptacles fill themselves. People’s attitudes and habits had to change, and, with our collective eyes opened and consciences shocked, we did.

I believe the same approach can work with privacy. Help consumers understand that they can and should expect more from their digital experience. Make them aware of their situation and their risk; educate them and equip them with the information they need to respond to organizations; give them a voice and a way to amplify it and things will change. Consumers will also take this newfound attitude and information into the workplace where their awareness will translate into greater responsibility with the sensitive information entrusted to them, helping to curb the instances of human error leading to the compromise of personally identifiable information and other valuable data.

It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen.

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