When it comes to privacy, Dr. Ann Cavoukian doesn’t do dogma. Over the past two decades, first as information and privacy commissioner for Ontario and now as executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Toronto’s Ryerson University, she has advocated a practical approach to privacy. “I often use the iceberg example,” says Cavoukian. “When I began as a regulator in the 1990s, my colleagues and I realized that, as [privacy] commissioners, we were barely seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the breaches that were happening. The majority were largely unknown, unregulated, unchallenged. Could you imagine your doctor saying, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the beginning of cancer, but we’re just going to let it develop and if it’s really bad we’ll offer some treatment afterwards’? We needed help, and not after the fact.”
This need was the impetus for Cavoukian’s landmark Privacy by Design framework, which was developed in the 1990s and took a pragmatic approach to guiding law enforcement, government and big brands into maintaining privacy for the public. The manifesto has been translated into 38 languages, most recently Georgian, and states that privacy should be proactive, not reactive, and embedded into design, offering visibility and transparency. Essentially, ensuring that privacy is on the onus of the provider and not the user.
“This responsibility is critical,” she says. “Your users will thank you for it. They will reward you with their repeat business and it will attract new opportunity.”
Even today, building Privacy by Design remains a sizable mission. Cavoukian hopes it will be supported by the forming of The International Council on Global Privacy and Security: By Design, which will enlist IT experts, business leaders and governmental commissions to get the message out. The council has three main goals. The first is to encourage faster technology innovation. The second is to create policy templates that show how privacy can be applied to technologies in the digital age. The third? “I don’t want to do it alone,” she says. “We need to educate politicians, businesses, governments, the media and the public that systems can be engineered to present both privacy and security. That is probably the most challenging one. Often people invoke the language of balance… But the problem with balance is that it is inherently zero-sum.”
Cavoukian believes that there can be a positive sum between privacy and security. “Get rid of the ‘versus’ and let’s embrace privacy and embed it into the code of information technologies, business practices and networked infrastructure,” she says.
Toronto is a benchmark that demonstrates the effect that a ‘positive sum’ mindset can have on a city, she says. Cavoukian gives the example of how traffic-monitoring services in the city have anonymized all data. They know that a car is going from A to B, but they don’t know who owns it. This data is “very useful”, Cavoukian says, “but you need to eliminate the privacy harms associated with it first. All you have to do is de-identify the data, making sure visitors are not personally identifiable. If done correctly you can minimize the risk of re-identification to levels beneath 0.1%. That’s comparable to the risk of being hit by lightning, which most people consider an acceptable risk.”
Cavoukian only has one issue with Toronto. “I always tell companies and governments [that] when you are engaged in this kind of privacy protection measures, don’t keep it to yourself,” she says. Instead, she has a suggestion: “Shout it from the rooftops!”