Panel: Understanding the data 'privacy gap' between consumers, businesses

Government and Silicon Valley leaders debate the gap between consumers giving away their personal data without actually comprehending how it is being used.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

Consumers are giving away more and more of their personal data online each day, but it's debatable how much they understand--or trust--where their information is going.

In support of International Data Privacy Day next week, The Churchill Club technology forum in partnership with Microsoft hosted a panel of government and Silicon Valley leaders to discuss what is being described as "the privacy gap."

But before deciding what privacy gaps might exist, the definition of privacy itself also seems to be up for debate in the digital age.

Pat Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, argued that "privacy is a continuum," explaining that the concept of either having privacy or not "doesn't work in the digital era."

One example that Dixon cited was understanding the difference between facial detection and facial recognition. The former, she said, doesn't necessarily store images and can't be used for the potentially more dangerous uses that facial recognition could be.

Jon Potter, president of the non-profit industry group Application Developers Alliance (ADA), commented that he's "a huge believer in consumer choice," specifying that this means "informed choices," and letting consumers make choices--informed choices.

"I also think the whole idea of privacy is a quirky word," said Potter. He mentioned that the ADA has surveyed consumers, noting that "well over 60 percent" of them are comfortable with sharing personal data.

The issues, he continued, then become about establishing "effective communication" between consumers and companies about what data is being collected, how it is being shared, and perhaps most importantly, if that business has had any data breaches.

Microsoft Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch retorted that "effective communication" is too difficult to achieve these days because most consumers just want to move on and "get the value of whatever the app is."

"They're really just looking for a label of safety and protection," Lynch said.

He described that Microsoft's approach is "privacy by design." Lynch explained that this means thinking about privacy from the inception point of a product or service, all the way through development and production.

Lynch acknowledged that this involves a combination of things--including effective notice and communication--but he said that it's "often its a matter of choosing better default settings on behalf of users."

Laura Berger, an attorney in the division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, posited that a lot of businesses are trying to communicate more effectively with consumers about data collection.

But she followed up that some companies fail to present this information to users in a clearer (or at least less deceptive) manner.

"We're all agreeing that the holy grail for this area is really effective consumer choice," Berger said. "I don't know anyone who says 'I don't think consumers should have a choice.'"

However, Potter remarked that consumer choice should equal "control" and not "a buffet" for businesses to do whatever they like.

"Choice might just be a blanket yes or no. The key is that you know that you have a choice," Potter asserted.

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