Want to avoid all private-data breaches, ever? Here's how

Wilderness guru speaks, world listens

'Positive sum model'

In a nutshell, what is Privacy by Design? Is it a set of programming interfaces, is it a concept, practices?

There are three things that are at the heart of Privacy by Design. You must be proactive, try to prevent the harm from arising, as opposed to the regulatory compliance model which we have which is reactive, after the fact, offering redress. Second, privacy must be embedded in design. It can mean embedded in the design of technology, all IT, but it's not just technology. You must get smart about privacy embedded in business practices and networked infrastructure.

The third one is probably the most important. It asks people to adopt what I call positive sum, not zero sum. You know what zero sum is. You can have one or the other. It's a system of balance, its a system of tradeoffs. In that model, privacy always loses out at the expense of some other functionality – security interests, business, marketing, biometrics, whatever.

In a positive sum model, you can have two positive growths and two positive functionalities at the same time, so it's doubly enabling. So it's not that you have to have privacy versus security. You can have privacy and security. Now, it's harder to do both because it requires innovation and creativity, but what could be more important than finding ways to embed privacy into all that we do?

Can you give me an example of Privacy by Design in action?

Three years ago, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission came to me about [the biometric database]. The problem is when you use a regular biometric program, use a biometric template, even if you encrypted it, it can be decrypted. And police can subpoena it. That's an unintended secondary use of the information no one had contemplated at the time.

Biometric encryption uses the biometric as the tool of encryption, almost like a private key, to encrypt meaningless data, an alpha numeric or 100-digit pin. What gets kept in database is that encrypted other information. So if police want that data, you say you're welcome to it, [but] the key resides on the person's face or finger. I don't have the decryption key. That's the only thing that can decrypt it.

That's a long way of saying you can use the biometric for that narrow purpose as it was intended, and totally privately. And it protects the privacy so all the regular patrons who are just coming to gamble for recreational purposes, none of their data is collected or retained in the system. So if there's not a match in the system, we keep nothing out, so you can reassure innocent patrons of the casino there's no threat to them whatsoever.

That's a technical solution to prevent unintended secondary consequences. I've actually called this the year of the engineer. I'm almost talking exclusively to engineers.

Privacy for users of smart grids, too

This is not just a conceptual abstraction. We've done this with the smart grid and smart meters. We've oprationalized the principles so that people can be assured that if they get a smart meter in their house, no one else is going to know about the activities within the house, which is sacrosanct. That's the last bastion of privacy. We embed the principles into the smart meter and the way the data are collected and used such that it is exactly as it was before when the guy used to come to your door, except now there's two-way communication, which allows you to monitor your electrical usage for time of use and [for] electricity conservation, but no information is used by the utility for any additional purposes.

Do you see there being a market for companies to use privacy as a competitive advantage? Can companies use privacy as a feature to compete?

If they don't use privacy, then they will pay. When you build privacy in at the initial stages, it doesn't cost that much. Of course, there's a cost associated, but it's minimal because you're just at the design stage. Nothing's up and running. And you can introduce the protections very efficiently and effectively at the design stage, with minimal cost. If you don't do that, I can virtually guarantee you'll have some sort of data breach at some time.

Data breaches cost companies enormously. Think of Sony. [Millions of dollars] so far and they're facing a class action lawsuit.

The hit to your brand, the hit to your reputation, all of that, not to mention the actual payout to customers, is enormous. So we tell people when you do privacy by design don't do it for altruistic reasons. Yes, it's good for customers and your users, but it's good for you as a business. It's going to save a boatload of cash and resources and damage to your company. So that's why we've been getting such an uptake on the part of companies.

We've heard regulators in Europe talk a bit about the right to be forgotten. Is that something you also advocate?

I'm not going to suggest that I'm opposed to it, because I respect the Europeans' wish to have that right. I think realistically, it's very difficult, in this day and age, not impossible. Maybe design technology so that it self destructs after 60 days, or something that has an end date. Right now, you keep it around forever.

To call it a right, I don't know. I haven't studied it legally. I can see how it might be a desirable goal. I don't know that it reflects the views of the constitution and the existing rights and freedoms that we have here. What I would say to companies, though, is: Whether you think there's a right to be forgotten or not, there's a lot of advantage.

If you've done some things you'd prefer to forget in your youth or, you know, everybody's done something. People would prefer not to have that haunt them for the rest of their lives. And companies, what I would say, is don't sit on data that you have forever, because it will come back to haunt you. It will be out of context, it'll be inaccurate, it'll be the wrong thing. And you're not going to benefit from it. And you have a duty of care to protect that information as long as you hold it.

So there might be this win-win solution of figuring out how long do you really need to keep this information and offer to your customers that we're going to destroy this data unless you want us to keep it after this date. Here's our retention practice. There's a lot of value to be gained by businesses offering it in that light, as opposed to necessarily relying on the right to be forgotten.

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