Six things I learned about privacy from some of the world’s top IT pros

Posted in: Technical Track


Everyone has their own experiences with data privacy. Ask almost anyone, and they’ll be able to tell you how a retail company found some innovative way of collecting their personal data, or how Facebook displayed a suggested post or ad that was uncannily targeted at them based on personal information they did not purposely share.


The discussion about privacy can get pretty interesting when you get a group of CIOs and IT leaders in the same room to talk about it.  And that’s just what we did at Pythian’s Velocity of Innovation (Velocity) events in New York, San Francisco and Sydney. With their ears constantly to the ground for the latest trends and unparalleled insider IT knowledge, there’s no better group with whom to talk security and privacy than our Velocity panelists and attendees.


At Pythian we manage the revenue-generating systems for some of the world’s leading enterprises, and work with our clients on some of the most difficult security and privacy issues. But staying on top of the evolving threats to data privacy is a constant challenge, even for the most knowledgeable security experts. One of our biggest challenges is helping our clients use data responsibly to improve customer experiences, while protecting individual privacy and safeguarding personally identifiable information from malicious threats. So there’s always more we can learn. This is one of the reasons we keep listening to our customers and peers through various channels and events like our Velocity discussions.


Privacy is a high stakes game for companies that want to maximize their use of client data while adhering to legislation designed to protect personal information. In many countries, new, more rigorous laws are emerging to enable individuals to maintain more control over their personal information, and to help them understand when they are being monitored or when their personal information is recorded, shared or sold. These laws include the recently  reformed  EU Data protection rules and PIPEDA in Canada. But companies are responding by finding clever ways of making it attractive for consumers to trade their data for services, or worse, by making it impossible to get service at all without giving up certain information.

With these issues in mind, we had some interesting discussions at each of our Velocity sessions. Here are six main privacy-related themes that emerged at these recent events:


  1. Privacy and security are not the same

Although are related, they refer to different ideas. Privacy is a major goal of security, and relates to a consumer’s right to safeguard their personal information. It can involve vulnerable data such as social media data, customer response data, demographic data or other personal information. In general, privacy is the individual’s right to keep his or her data to himself or herself. By contrast, security refers to the protection of enterprise or government systems. Security may incorporate customer privacy as part of its agenda, but the two are not synonymous. According to Tim Sheedy, principal analyst with Forrester Research, a panelist at our Sydney event, security and privacy are different things. “But if you have a security breach, privacy becomes an issue,” he said. “So they’re closely linked.”


  1. Balance is key

Our panelists agreed that you have to balance protecting customer data with moving the business forward. But if you’re in the insurance business, like San Francisco Velocity panelist and CTO at RMS Cory Isaacson, that’s a tough balance to strike. He has to worry about how his company’s data privacy measures up against industry standards and the regulations they have meet. At the same time he has to ensure that data security doesn’t paralyze innovation in the business. He says you have to be innovative with moving the business forward, as well as keeping up with standards and regulations.

“If you listen to your ISO auditor you’re never going to get out of bed in the morning,” Isaacson said. “If you’re faced with securing highly sensitive customer data, you have to incorporate it into the way you work every day instead of letting it slow you down.”


  1. Don’t be creepy

Companies have to walk a fine line between using personal data to enhance the customer experience and being intrusive for no good reason. Forrester’s Sheedy warns that perception is everything. “Don’t be creepy,” he said. “When you’re creepy that that’s when privacy becomes an issue. Don’t underestimate the ability of people to give away information for a discount or for a benefit. But the key is that there has to be a benefit. When there isn’t an upside, it becomes creepy for customers, and you have to wonder if you’ve  gone too far.”


  1. People will share data in exchange for perks.

Our Sydney panelists and attendees exchanged ideas about new ways that companies are obtaining information about customers, behaviours and preferences. They talked about social media companies learning your behaviours by using more than just the data you share on your profile, including using tactics like tracking your location through GPS and triangulation between cell phone towers.


“When I visit Pythian’s head office in Ottawa, the nearby coffee shop has an app that asks if I want them to prepare my usual drink when it detects I’m nearby. Is that intrusive? No, because I opted in,” said Francisco Alvarez, vice president, APAC at Pythian.


A Marketing Magazine article reported that in a recent survey, a majority of consumers will share data for certain benefits: 80 percent said they would share data for rewards from a company, 79 percent would share data for cash back, and 77 percent would share data for coupons. The majority also said they would share personal data for location-based discounts (69 percent).


  1. Millennials have a higher tolerance for sharing data.

The Australian panelists talked about this extensively, citing personal experience. They expressed the same concern many of us feel  about how much data their children’s generation is a sharing online and with companies. One of our attendees had a child who was denied a prestigious scholarship because his digital footprint wasn’t favourable. But, Alvarez said, this type of consequence doesn’t seem to deter millennials from freely sharing very personal information. And when it comes to sharing information with businesses in exchange for perceived benefits, their tolerance is very high.  


In fact, according to a survey conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for Digital Future and Bovitz Inc., millennials (individuals between the ages of 18 and 35) have a different attitude than Internet users 35 years and older when it comes to sharing their personal data online with businesses.  According to the study results, millennials were more likely than older respondents (35 years and older) to trade some of their personal information in exchange for more relevant advertising.


  1. New  approaches for protecting customer data are on the horizon

In our San Francisco discussion, Pythian Chief Digital Officer Aaron Lee cited Google’s new initiative for protecting customer data.  The new approach involves placing corporate applications on the Internet itself and focusing its security efforts on registered devices and user authentication.
“It’s really simple idea,” Lee said.  “In most companies the internal network is special. If you’re on the internal network you get stuff you can’t get from outside just because you’re sitting there on the network. That’s not the case anymore. With Google’s Beyond Corp initiative it is like there are no more internal networks. If you want to talk to my service, you treat it like you came in from the internet just like everybody else. That way I can apply a consistent approach to authentication, authorization, all that good stuff. It’s actually acting to reduce the surface of complexity. It’s an approach that takes the simplest way that we can secure these things, and treats them the same regardless of where they actually live,” he said.



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About the Author

Lynda Partner is a self-professed data addict who understands how transformational data can be for organizations. In her role as EVP of Data and Analytics, Lynda focuses on Pythian’s services that help customers harness the power of data and analytics and holistically manage their data estate.

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