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January, 28th 2013

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Christina Peters, Chief Privacy Officer, IBM

By Christina Peters

Today is Data Privacy Day – a day designed to promote the protection of privacy and data.

Most of us want to keep at least some information about ourselves private. But as we lead our increasingly digital lives, we create larger and larger amounts of personal information which gets used in a variety of ways. Sometimes we feel uneasy when we realize that we may not understand how or why, or by whom, our information will be used. Other times we share it to get something we want or need, like a map application that uses our location data. When we understand how our information is used and see the benefit, we see not a privacy violation, but a helpful tool. 

Information – including personal information – is becoming a helpful tool on a grand scale. When combined in great quantities and put through sophisticated analysis, it is helping solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

Consider Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure, and treatment options are few. Last summer the Alzheimer’s Association announced a pioneering “Big Data” project that will enable scientists to obtain whole genome sequences on the largest group of individuals related to a single disease. It represents arguably the most personal data imaginable – the six billion letters making up our DNA. Yet looking at this data collectively (and anonymously) gives scientists hope that they can accelerate discovery of new treatments for this devastating disease.

Energy conservation is another example. Showing people data about their own energy use can inspire smarter consumption. When people see how much more it costs them to run their washing machines, they often decide to postpone that task by a few hours. Comparing themselves to their neighbors can inspire them even further. For example, Energy Saving Trust in the UK is working with stakeholders on a project that is using data on 26 millionUK homes to provide impartial advice on how to use energy and water more sustainably, and save money on energy bills. The result is good for both the pocketbook and the planet. 

As compelling as data innovation projects like these are, they’re not without their risks. DNA, even if anonymous, can be linked with donors, and energy consumption data can be misused. For people focused on privacy, it can be tempting to want to simply stop the data collection and analytics that underlie data innovation. 

But the stakes are too high for that. The world needs solutions and deserves the hard work that goes into providing them while protecting privacy. With forethought and effort, there are important steps businesses can take: 

  • Practice “privacy by design” – This is a systematic way of thinking and acting proactively and responsibly about the use of data. When organizations that use personal information take privacy into account from the start, they act as better stewards of that information and help individuals make more informed choices. We welcome the growing ranks of organizations working to adopt this approach. That’s why we built privacy into our new sensemaking analytics technology code-named “G2” and also published a paper describing how.  
  • Promote transparency – IBM has been urging open communication for a long time. As far back as 1999 we decided to withhold advertising dollars from North American websites that did not post their privacy policies. But industry can do more than post a privacy policy. That’s why IBM and other companies are working with the Future of Privacy Forum on a consumer trust seal, authenticated by a third party, to give consumers confidence in smart grids. Whether it’s agreeing to have their genomes sequenced or sharing data about when they ran their washing machines, people are more willing to contribute their information if the organization seeking it can answer: “How is this data going to solve a problem I care about?” Organizations can also do a better job of communicating with regulators and policymakers about the promise and risks of this technology. 

What has data done for you lately? It’s a fair question. Maybe today it helped you find your way to a meeting, but tomorrow it may lead to a cure for a disease that affects you or makes your city safer. It is giving us a tool that can provide insight and even solutions to problems that matter deeply to each of us. While the risks are real, forward-looking policymakers, businesspeople and individuals should seek not to halt innovation in the name of privacy or to abandon privacy to foster innovation. We can, and we must, deliver both. 


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