Far from dead, privacy is alive and well in the era of big data | #WomenInTech

michelle-dennedy-pro

Sun Microsystems Inc. Chief Executive Scott McNealy’s infamous statement in 1999, “You have zero privacy … Get over it,” has long been a go-to quote for those highlighting the dangers of technology’s potential to intrude on personal lives in unintended ways. But for privacy advocates, developers and others working to define and design the interactions between technologies and people’s private lives, the real situation isn’t nearly as definitive as McNealy’s declaration.

Michelle Dennedy (pictured), vice president and chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems Inc., was McNealy’s privacy chief when he made that statement, she recalled in an interview with Jeff Frick (@JeffFrick), co-host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio.

They talked at a Data Privacy Day event held Thursday by the National Cyber Security Alliance at the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter Inc., a sponsor of the event. Data Privacy Day is an annual celebration to recognize the Jan. 28, 1981, signing of Convention 108, the first legally binding international treaty concerning privacy and data protection.

This is one of a series of interviews with top executives and thought leaders at the event, and also highlights this week’s featured Woman in Tech.

Redefining privacy

The world has changed in incredible ways since those days, she said, and the endurance of McNealy’s quote was all the more surprising for the context in which it was spoken. It was during a press conference to introduce the wireless printing capability made possible by “a connectivity offshoot of Java.”

In the years since, that sort of wireless networking has found its way into more and more aspects of life, with some of its latest instances found in health/fitness trackers, children’s toys, thermostats and cars. The ubiquity of these devices, with their potential to gather personal information ranging from unimportant to embarrassing to incriminating, is providing just as wide a range of challenges for companies, consumers and governments in coming to terms with how to regulate their capabilities.

But before regulation can be undertaken, users and providers of these networked data-gatherers must decide just what they want from the devices. And with data being such a valuable asset, the motivations for casting a wide net could be seen as overwhelming the concerns for responsible narrowing of that scope. That struggle is one that will be at the core of deliberations for some time to come, Dennedy said.

“When you say ‘privacy is dead,’ if what you mean by that is secrecy and hiding away and not being connected to the world around you, I may agree with you,” she said. “However, privacy as a functional definition of how we define ourselves, how we live in a culture, what we can expect in terms of morality, ethics, respect and security — [it’s] alive and well, baby, alive and well.”

The security of privacy

To keep privacy functional and understood by the people it affects, some forward-looking companies are looking to address it directly by establishing officers to handle its important role in their business deals, products, customer services and many other roles.

The purpose of a chief privacy officer, as Dennedy explained it, is to measure the gains and losses of data for both the company and its customers and to understand and explain the implications of those data fluctuations. Data, she said, is like currency in that it depends on interactions between users to have value.

Dennedy also drew a distinction between security and privacy, which can get confused. Security is the “what,” she said. “I can really secure almost any batch of data. It can be complete gobbledygook zeroes and ones. It could be something really critical. It could be my medical records.”

By contrast, she said, “privacy and the data about what that context is, that’s the ‘why.'” You may not need privacy for some kinds of data, and people may differ on the kinds of data they want to protect. “You secure what you treasure,” she said.

The branded future

A special challenge for young people in the age of big data is that facts have become a cheap commodity, while critical thinking has become the new high-ticket quality. Any kid with a data-enabled mobile phone and Google can access amounts of data that would put a full encyclopedia set to shame, Dennedy said. So the challenges shift to identifying valuable data, filtering out the chaff and, perhaps most importantly, understanding the implications of branding as it relates to themselves and their networked connections.

“I am hugely optimistic that the kids coming up are really starting to understand the power of brand — personal brand, family brand, cultural brand — and they’re feeling very activist about the whole thing,” Dennedy said. “Kids can curate who and what and how they are over the network.”

Here’s the complete video interview with Dennedy. You can watch the rest of theCUBE’s coverage of the event here.

Photo by SiliconANGLE