Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Wither the Privacy Hero...

The Hero in computing is a well known phenomena - think of the lone programmer, sysadmin or hacker for example. However the hero also occurs in all domains including privacy. The privacy hero is the one who has hand crafted the privacy policy, set down in stone a lengthly list of privacy requirements and compliance activies without consulting the engineers and users who have to implement and use these.

As many disciplines, especially that of medicine, have discovered, the hero is the most dangerous person there is. By working against the odds, he (or she) usually creates a victory where all is solved [1]. Be it uring a patient or creating the rules by which the company is saved from an inglorious admission of a data breach. Even if there is a breach or the patient later dies, it can't be the hero's fault, but the others such as the failed care of the nurses or the engineers who never listened. In reality the nurses and the engineers are usually patching the damages caused by the hero.

Our current cultural setups in privacy, and especially now we're starting to get engineers actively involved in the privacy debate, needs to change from the Privacy Heros to a much tightly integrated team of experts.

In [2], Atul Gawande clearly states that the nurses, technicians and other personel "work for" the hero doctor. In privacy we still have the same attitude, software engineers "work for" the Privacy Officers.

We suffer from a huge lack of teamwork - the privacy hero's word is the Truth and that's it. Within the current culture of privacy, the engineers who are battling to implement or even comprehend privacy requirements written and explained at a completely different level of asbtraction than is necessary do not play any major part in those requirements.

Consider the defintions of personal data or PII for example, have these even been properly grounded in the undelying mathematical theories of what information is; or even for that matter in terms that can be properly understood by software engineers in their domain. Even within the legal domain, these terms have been defined in such a way that they are underspecified and open to legal interpretation.

In order to move from a highly ineffective privacy priesthood to a true, all encompasing and all relevant discipline based on a mutually supporting combination of legal, scientific and engineering principles we must change our culture from that of the Hero to that of the Team.


[1] Suzanne Gordon, Patrick Mendenhall and Bonnie Blair O'Connor. Beyond the Checklist
[2] Atul Gawande, Better
[3] Ian Oliver. Privacy Engineering: A Dataflow and Ontological Approach.

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