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Experts discuss consumer, industry privacy issues in the digital age

Experts discuss consumer, industry privacy issues in the digital age

By John Glynn

Privacy and data security must be strategic considerations for every business, experts said at an American Bar Association Midyear Meeting panel Feb. 6. The panel, “Privacy in the Digital Age ─ Is There Even a Barn Door Left to Close?” addressed consumer and industry points of view about privacy. Industry, public interest groups and government positions were represented on the panel.

For those who manage electronic data, risks include not just security breaches but also a variety of privacy glitches, such as FTC enforcement actions alleging insufficient or inaccurate notice in a privacy policy. Given high-profile incidents such as the recent Target security breach, strategic business partners will seek confirmation that a company is privacy-savvy from the start: “It’s better to consider it upfront,” said Joyce Yeager, assistant attorney general, Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

Jerry Jones, company legal leader, Acxiom Corp., said he looks at privacy from an ethical point of view. “If I just focused on the law, I’d be behind,” he said. “Technology is moving too fast.”

The concept of privacy in a democracy is fraught with contradictions, he said, because a democracy is based on participation.

In addition, the data industry plays a vital role in the U.S. economy: It has created millions of jobs, Jones said. “The use of data is an economic benefit,” he said. “There needs to be smart regulation.”

However, Ronald Raether of Faruki Ireland & Cox in Dayton, Ohio, said there has not been a lot of movement in the privacy debate or in possible solutions. Regulations often create a complicated patchwork that “makes things more complicated.”

Consumers, he said, want “choice, accuracy and security.” Industry, on the other hand, wants “certainty, profitability and goodwill.”

“These objectives line up well,” said Raether, who proposed that there should be a uniform set of privacy principles for consumers, and companies can agree to abide by them.

Consumers are thinking about privacy more than ever before, and that’s a sea change, added Nate Cardozo of San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In terms of industry, technology companies have recognized the need for privacy much sooner than other types of companies, he added. “Transparency is becoming the new industry standard,” Cardozo said, emphasizing that it’s important for companies to have privacy policies in place.

Consumers have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but what does this mean? asked Lyman Chuck Taylor, deputy attorney general for Indiana’s Office of the Attorney General. Taylor said the issue is complicated because privacy expectations are constantly evolving.

Privacy policies are often problematic because they are ambiguous about what happens to the information that is collected, Taylor said. Companies should be creating policies that recognize that consumers do have a right to privacy. “Consumer and industry rights are at stake,” he said.

Yeager advised that companies shouldn’t collect data if they don’t need it. She also said that encryption is a “safe harbor” and companies should be using it.

The consequences of a breach can be dire, she added. It can put a small company out of business.

For more information on privacy issues, Yeager suggested checking out the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

The panel was moderated by Ashley Taylor of Troutman Sanders in Richmond, Va.  It was sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law.

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