Commentary: Let the sun shine on privacy protection

There may be gold in them thar demographics, but it is a wise enterprise that mines its user information cautiously.

3 min read
By Bill Malik, Gartner Analyst

There may be gold in them thar demographics, but it is a wise enterprise that mines its user information cautiously.

See news story:
IBM appoints chief privacy officer
The appointment of Harriet Pearson as IBM's first chief privacy officer should be viewed as the bellwether event it clearly is in the evolution of e-commerce.

As more and more consumers turn to the Web as a medium for purchasing goods and services, increasingly more sensitive data about them is being stored in computer records. The creation of a privacy czar at IBM, one of the most visible and respected technology companies, signals a trend that all other consumer-oriented companies would be smart to follow, whether they're active in e-commerce or not.

At IBM, the privacy officer role will address both internal and external matters. The internal matters include policy development, deployment and conformance, and relationships with IBM's current and former employees. The external matters include IBM's interactions with other businesses and the public sector, as well as with IBM's shareholders, customers, the press and the public at large.

IBM's influence in all those domains is vast; its potential scope of impact by creating and supporting the new executive role is enormous. A properly functioning privacy office will maintain an appropriate balance between individuals' expectations of privacy and IBM's right to use properly gathered confidential material in an ethical manner.

Also, an effective chief privacy officer will focus the executive leadership team on this crucial matter for corporate governance, as the industry moves beyond the dial-in Internet world of the 1990s to universal, uninterrupted availability of information and connectivity, both wired and wireless.

Harriet Pearson's background in conceptual fields, such as law and public policy--as well as her technical training in engineering--augurs well for IBM to help drive a new focus on key privacy matters and concerns.

The privacy issue surrounding e-business so far has become bogged down in such mundane topics as firewalls and encryption solutions. What has been missing is the human issue.

Businesses entrusted with personal information about their customers must recognize the fragile trust that customers bestow on them. Although detailed demographic data undoubtedly will enable savvy marketers to make their goods and services even more valuable to customers, use of such information requires a sober hand and respectful attitude.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote, "knowledge is power." Such a thought was a truism half a millennium ago just as it is today. However, businesses throughout all industries would be wise to heed another Bacon observation: "He who will not apply new remedies must expect new evils, for time is the greatest innovator." And the time for a chief privacy office function is nigh.

(For related commentary on privacy issues and policies, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

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