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It's never been easier to collect, store information about you and me

Source: Toronto Star

Posted on November 27, 2000

      When the Royal Bank of Canada announced in September that it had appointed a corporate privacy officer to protect the personal information of its clients, it was one of those press releases I was reluctant to chuck out.

      I'd say about 99 per cent of the releases I get go directly to the recycling bin on my desktop or under my desk. Normally, corporate appointments make me yawn. But this one was different. I'd never heard of any Canadian company, particularly a large corporation such as Royal Bank, hiring somebody to deal exclusively with privacy policy.

      It made me wonder whether this was the early beginning of a significant trend.

      Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Peter Cullen, Royal Bank's chief privacy guy, at a cosy conference at the Chateau Montebello, about 45 minutes east of Ottawa in Quebec.

      Quite appropriately, it was a very private location, looking - as a visiting U.S. trade commissioner pointed out - a bit like the resort hotel where Jack Nicholson went crazy in The Shining.

      During an informal wine and cheese party, I found out that Cullen is one of maybe two people in corporate Canada - and one of a couple hundred throughout North America - who holds a senior executive position dedicated to privacy matters.

      The other is privacy guru Stephanie Perrin, a former federal bureaucrat who is now chief privacy officer for Zero Knowledge Systems Inc., the Montreal software company that hosted the conference.

      After speaking with Cullen and Perrin, it became clear that the position of ``privacy officer,'' while new, is going to spread like an e-mail virus on the Web.

      So if you're looking for a career in a growing field, pay close attention.

      Canada's new e-commerce privacy legislation - the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, or Bill C-6 - goes into effect on Jan. 1, and part of that law requires companies that collect personal data to appoint someone responsible for their privacy conduct.

      What does this person do? Well, it's still early days, and the job description hasn't been entirely written. But generally, the privacy officer would handle inquiries from customers, employees, or the general public, and would oversee how well a company is carrying out its privacy policy, using Bill C-6 and similar provincial legislation as the benchmark.

      Bill C-6, for example, requires companies to get consent from people before collecting their data, as well as consent on what can be done with that data.

      It's no secret that most large corporations today collect and analyze personal information to get a better handle on what their customers are thinking, what they buy, how they live and where they live.

      It's also no secret that companies have been doing it for decades. But things are different in the digital age. Wireless technologies can now track your every step or misstep. Advanced database software makes it possible to manage an immense amount of personal information. Business intelligence software can identify trends in personal data.

      And the Internet?

      Well, let's just say that it's never been easier to centrally store, collect and share personal data. Fibre-optics and wireless networks wrap the planet like a ball of yarn, and within the strands of that global network is detailed medical, financial and employment information about you and me.

      No big deal, you say? It's a typical response. Most consumers have no clue of how much data about them is flowing through the world's electronic pipes. That's part of the problem: We don't know. Data collection to date has largely been done behind closed doors and without your consent. It's often shared, unprotected and available to anybody who knows how to find it.

      Had an abortion recently? Are you being stalked by an ex-lover? Are you taking Viagra? Now tell me: Do you want your personal information floating around?

      Believe me, it already is. At issue today is who has access to it and how well it's protected. Bill C-6 will at least throw a little accountability into the market, until most companies realize that respecting privacy isn't just a legal issue - it's simply good business.

      Whether a company's goal is to run a good business or simply comply with the law, the end effect is a rising demand for people who are skilled in the privacy arena.

      Lawyers, auditors, policymakers and consultants with a speciality in online privacy policy are already in short supply. Ever heard of privacy forensics? Well, you might in a year or two. As privacy reaches the forefront of public policy in Canada, we will need more skills to handle the demand.

      Educators will need to develop programs geared toward this new profession. And those looking for a career change, or just beginning a post-secondary education, should consider this an opportune time to ride the wave.

      ``Privacy litigation is going to be a major opportunity for law firms for years,'' says Dr. Lawrence Ponemon, global leader for the privacy and compliance management practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

      Ponemon, a speaker at Montebello, says that privacy is his firm's fastest-growing practice area. It appears that tobacco lawsuits are being replaced by privacy lawsuits. Already, we've seen major U.S. companies such as Intel Corp. and DoubleClick Inc., and newly defunct start-ups such as Toysmart.com, being dragged to court for privacy violation.

      Some observers say the mega-merger between Time Warner and America Online Inc. could be derailed by privacy concerns. And for the first time ever, many candidates for the U.S. election chose privacy as an issue to campaign on.

      George Radwanski, Canada's new privacy commissioner, summarized it best during a presentation at the conference. ``Privacy is the defining issue of the next decade.''

      As a reporter, I pledge to follow this issue more closely. The press, as we all know, is an effective mechanism for assuring accountability, and I urge those with knowledge of privacy violations to drop me a line. And don't worry: All e-mails will be kept confidential.

by Tyler Hamilton, Toronto Star

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