Privacy risks get real

When you think of “the usual” privacy risks you think of things like brand and reputation damage, fines, and increased regulations. You don’t think of jail time for executives. But jail time is exactly what some Google executives face if an Italian prosecutor has his way.

The arrest of Peter Fleischer, Google’s Paris-based Global Privacy Counsel, in Milan on January 23 stems from video that was briefly available on Google’s site in Italy. The video showed high school students bullying a classmate with Down Syndrome. Google took down the video in less than 24 hours after receiving complaints about it. The view of Milan’s public prosecutor is that permitting posting of the video for any period of time was a criminal offense. Fleischer and three other Google employees have been charged with defamation and failure to control personal information.

In our forthcoming report, Bob and I explore the contextual nature of privacy. Google clearly operates in multiple geographic and legal contexts. In the US, Google enjoys protections similar to those afforded “common carriers”. However, in Italy, Google is being treated as a content provider and not a content distributor, and thus is not receiving any such protection.

The contextuality of privacy requires that you evaluate your business from all relevant contexts. In this case, Google may find that it should have looked at its video services from the perspective of an Italian user as well as an Italian regulator. This examination from all relevant contexts would highlight not only conflicts between contexts (someone’s desire to publish a video versus a state’s definition of what constitutes offensive or inappropriate content) but also conflicts between contexts and the organization’s business model. Google’s business of allowing anyone to post a video is in this case colliding with an Italian regulator’s desire to treat Google as a content provider, holding Google to an unanticipated set of requirements.

There’s no way that a small privacy team will be able to know everything about every context the company does business in. To that end, a side effect of doing business in multiple contexts can be a budgetary one. Organizations may need to budget for external legal counsel, counsel that specializes privacy for the contexts they are working in to aid privacy teams in their evaluation of relevant contexts.

We don’t expect criminal penalties for privacy violations to become common, and it’s not at all clear that the action against Google’s executives will be sustained by the Italian courts. But that being said, we do expect privacy regulations to become stricter and subsequent penalties to become more severe. Privacy risks are getting real. Join us at Catalyst this summer and learn how to adapt, and thrive, in the face of this new reality.

(Cross-posted from Burton Group’s Identity Blog.)

Stripping Search

In response to regulatory pressure and to apply some pressure on their competition, Yahoo has announced that after 90 days it will anonymize search queries and remove personally identifiable information (PII) from them as well.  Specifically, Yahoo will delete the last eight bits from the IP address associate with a search.  Further, Yahoo will remove some PII data, like names, phone numbers and Social Security numbers from the searches.  The goal is to (eventually) destroy the ties between a person and what that person searches for which could include embarrassing, compromising, or sensitive items such as information about medical conditions, political opposition materials, adult entertainment, etc.

There are two points I want to draw you attention to.  The first point is related to the amount of time search providers, like Yahoo, hold identifiable search queries.  Regulators have recommended to search vendors to reduce how long they hold identifiable searches.  The EU has recommended 6 months, for example.  Yahoo, reducing their retention time from 13 months, has taken a laudable step to reduce that time to 90 days.

In the future, the time it takes a search provider to extract whatever goodness it wants to out of a search query (to feed its varied businesses) and anonymize that query will reach zero.  External pressures aside, the Googles and Yahoos of the world will achieve near-instantaneous goodness-extraction/anonymization of search queries simply because it reduces what they have to store, maintain, and worry about.  That being said, even though search providers will be able to achieve near-instantaneous extraction and anonymization, they will never be able to put it into practice.  Why?  Because there will always be a desire on the part of law enforcement to gain access to those identifiable searches. Continue reading Stripping Search