Big Data Seeks Higher Ground on Privacy

Big Data Seeks Higher Ground on Privacy

By Mark Albertson / October 9, 2014

There is a widely quoted phrase that “trust takes years to build, seconds to destroy, and forever to repair.” At a luncheon attended by high-level technology executives and analysts in San Francisco yesterday, everyone associated with data privacy was focused strongly on the repair part.

Against a backdrop of Snowden/NSA revelations and growing consumer concern about massive data breaches on the Internet, participants in the gathering (which was organized and hosted byIntel) seemed to echo a common refrain: written privacy policies aren’t getting the job done. “There’s a huge gap between a company’s privacy policy and what happens in systems,” said Danny Weitzner, co-founder of TrustLayers and the former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Internet Policy in the White House.

The crux of the problem is that technology itself often dictates the amount of control people have over the use of data it collects. A good example of this can be found in Sensity, a rapidly expanding firm that has turned the common light fixture into a powerful data gathering device using video and sound recording.

Companies and city governments install Sensity’s products because they want safety and security on city streets or parking lots. But the tradeoff is that unsuspecting citizens surrender control over the data that’s collected around the clock. “Rather than a policy, the technology will work according to how it’s designed,” said Scott Shipman, Sensity’s General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer.

Yet, there is also a growing belief, expressed by several attendees yesterday, that there needs to be stronger controls over the wholesale collection of personal data. In today’s real world, when a mobile user signs up for an app, hands over a ton of information to use it, and then decides the app wasn’t going to work for them, the app maker still walks off with all that data, free and clear.

Companies like Personal.com are challenging that model. They offer a cloud-based data vault for individuals to manage their data and identity. “Rather than protect the company from the individual, we’re trying to protect the individual from the company,” said Shane Green, Personal’s co-founder.

Green’s firm, which operates on the philosophy that “small data is the new oil,” gives users a highly-encrypted storage service where they can park their personally identifiable information. Personal’s customers are the only ones who have the keys.

The luncheon discussion also touched on the role of government in protecting privacy. There was a clear belief that policy is needed, but that no one should hold their breath waiting for the current Congress to act. “People want to be protected by their government when it comes to privacy,” said Weitzner, “but it’s not going to let companies off the hook.”

This issue of government’s role and privacy was also touched on briefly at the Intel event by Walter Isaacson, author of the definitive biography of Steve Jobs. The former chairman and CEO of CNN expressed his view that the world and the U.S. in particular were “thinking it through rather quickly.”

“There’s no easy answer,” Isaacson admitted. “America is good with tension like that.”

In his introductory remarks at the San Francisco gathering, Intel’s Director of Security Policy, David Hoffman, declared that “Intel believes that privacy is foundational for the use of big data” and called for a “data innovation pledge” to protect users’ rights. The big players in the technology world are clearly focused now on the privacy issue, but when you’re in repair mode, there’s still plenty that needs to be fixed.