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The paradox of personal privacy


Joel Dobbs.GIF

“Privacy as we knew it is virtually gone. Why should you care?” — Lew McCreary


In Wounded Prophet, a biography of Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen, author Michael Ford quotes a friend of Nouwen who said, “I don’t believe that Henri ever had an unpublished thought.”


Perusing most social media, especially the steady stream of tweets and Facebook posts, I can empathize with the very prolific Nouwen’s friend; I have the same reaction to thousands of my fellow human beings. Is there anything some people won’t — or don’t — say about themselves? There are those whose every move seems to be chronicled in social media, validated by a map showing exactly where they are, and often documented with a picture. What they are eating. What they are thinking. Everything gets published. I won’t even attempt to shoehorn into this conversation the numerous political figures and celebrities who have posted hastily shared information or photos of themselves.


Increasingly onerous privacy governance vs. an ever more public populace

Juxtapose this with the numerous requirements and laws designed to protect our privacy and the penalties companies can face for failing to do so. In my last company, in addition to my role as CIO, I also served as Chief Privacy Officer, a legally required position in my industry. We were required to have extensive procedures to protect the privacy of the information we were entrusted with. We encrypted disk drives, thumb drives and tapes. We had training programs. We took all of this very seriously as well we should. Personal information must be protected.


Here is the paradox: As threats to privacy increase and legislation governing privacy protection becomes more onerous, we have a growing number of people who apparently think nothing about sharing personal details of their whereabouts or personal lives online. As most of us know, most security breaches are perpetrated by social engineering combined with technical savvy. The crook pieces information together from various sources including on-line information which then may help them successfully pose as someone else, enabling them to gain enough information to raid bank accounts, steal credit card information, or something worse.


I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that this is a problem that will not go away and, as more people are less discreet with what they share online, our efforts to protect their personal data will only get harder.


Related links: Why CIOs should mind their own “busyness”

How enterprise IT can master the consumer age


Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


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I think that this is one of the toughest questions that will face legislators in the future. We get a lot of "free stuff" by givng up personal information, and most of us are giving up information without realizing it.


But legislators are getting wise to this. The NSA's possible tapping of European politicians' phones has come at an "interesting time".  The European Union is starting to look at privacy laws and commentators on BBC radio felt that the NSA's actions would make the EU more hard-line than they would otherwise have been.


There is even talk of people have the ability to have their history wiped from social media sites as a "human right". I remember reading that Gartner predicted that people would actually change their names by deed poll when they leave university because their youths would leave too much legacy.


The other area of technology that is bringing up privacy concerns is machine data or, "The Internet of Things". We could have information pouring off us from the sensors that either we carry or that are in the cities we walk and drive around. I think we haven't even touched the surface of this subject yet as regards public debate. 


It's going to be very difficult to create software to enact the privacy legislation because I think it's going to be changing so fast, and it's going to be very local - what you can do in Califorinia, for example, may be different to what you can in other states; and the same between counties in Europe and the rest of the world. 

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