Skip to main content

Privacy is Dead - Well Almost!

"Privacy" said Sun Microsystems CEO, Scott McNealy, "is dead. Deal with it"

It may not be dead but it’s certainly struggling and while McNealy's statement is unlikely to alarm many organisations, then it should, as we continue to experience the turbulent wake of this month’s WikiLeaks revelations. Julian Assange’s latest target, is now big business and in what could be his biggest mistake to date, he promises to turn a major US bank, reportedly the Bank of America, "Inside-out", with "Tens of thousands" of documents to be released in the New Year. Indeed, 2011 may be the year that 'Information assurance', frequently regarded as an oxymoron, assumes a new meaning and an urgency to match.

Here, in the UK the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has new and overdue powers to fine private and public sector bodies that fail to meet their data protection, compliance and privacy obligations. Most recently, Hertfordshire county council was fined £100,000 for faxing details about child sex abuse cases to the wrong recipients and employment services company A4e was also fined £60,000 by the ICO for losing an unencrypted laptop. The fines were the first issued by the ICO since it was given the power to issue financial penalties of up to £500,000 in April.

In recent years, organisations across the world have been forced to admit to significant data breaches and these include HMRC, TK Maxx, Heartland Payment Systems, HSBC and this month even AT&T and Apple Computer. The on-going WikiLeaks story reveals the more salacious consequences of sensitive data loss but on this occasion with deeply embarrassing geo-political and strategic implications for the United States Government.

Examining the data security challenge in its broadest sense, security vendor, Cryptic Software, proposes a ‘virtuous circle’, requiring all stakeholders to be able to demonstrate a reciprocal privacy dividend, on an on-going basis, in order to build trust. In particular and with emerging Cloud Computing standards and creeping virtualisation spelling-out the direction of business systems and the data-centre, Cryptic argues that it becomes increasingly important for all cloud-based services and accounts to be monitored; offering a forensically sound audit trail in the event of any security or privacy breach that might compromise sensitive or classified corporate information assets.

While Cryptic are making a strong case for proper accountability across the complex spectrum of information exchange, it may equally be argued that while the financial services industry has taken information assurance and compliance far more seriously in the light of evolving legislation and PCI/DSS compliance standards, business and the public sector have proved much slower in meeting their privacy obligations. With growing sophistication being demonstrated by organised criminal gangs together with the infiltration or loss of tiny but powerful mobile data storage devices, capable of vacuuming gigabytes of sensitive data in a few minutes, it’s time for the threat with its damaging reputational issues and increasingly tough financial sanctions to be treated as a priority at boardroom level.

So where do we go from here? There’s no doubt that the proper tools and information assurance policies exist to mitigate the privacy threat but in my experience a large swathe of organisations are still failing to recognise both the reality and the risk of operating in a widely-connected, data-intensive and highly available 21st century business environment.

In summary then, two words spring to mind, risk and responsibility. There’s no shortage of horror stories involving the experiences and very public failures of other organisations and there’s certainly no lack of educational information, tools and resources for any business to apply to the task. However, writing as one with a political responsibility in the public sector, I would argue that responsibility and where it lies in the organisation holds the key. Often I find the task of managing an information assurance policy isn’t joined-up and may be split between IT, Legal and/or Human Resources and while no single person ‘owns’ the responsibility everyone suddenly owns the consequences of reputational risk when data is lost or stolen.

So if privacy is indeed dead, as Scott McNealy suggests, then WikiLeaks may offer a compelling reason for any organisation, public or private, to be proactive about both risk and responsibility and have a strong compliance-oriented resurrection policy in place before the undertaker arrives!

Popular posts from this blog

Civilisational Data Mining

It’s a new expression I haven’t heard before. ‘Civilisational data mining.’

Let me start by putting it in some context. Every character, you or I have typed into the Google search engine or Facebook over the last decade, means something, to someone or perhaps ‘something,’ if it’s an algorithm.


In May 2014, journalists revealed that the United States National Security Agency, the NSA, was recording and archiving every single cell-phone conversation that took place in the Bahamas. In the process they managed to transform a significant proportion of a society’s day to day interactions into unstructured data; valuable information which can of course be analysed, correlated and transformed for whatever purpose the intelligence agency deems fit.

And today, I read that a GOP-hired data company in the United States has ‘leaked’ personal information, preferences and voting intentions on… wait for it… 198 million US citizens.

Within another decade or so, the cost of sequencing the human genome …

The Nature of Nurture?

Recently, I found myself in a fascinating four-way Twitter exchange, with Professor Adam Rutherford and two other science-minded friends The subject, frequently regarded as a delicate one, genetics and whether there could exist an unknown but contributory genetic factor(s) or influences in determining what we broadly understand or misunderstand as human intelligence.

I won’t discuss this subject in any great detail here, being completely unqualified to do so, but I’ll point you at the document we were discussing, and Rutherford’s excellent new book, ‘A Brief History of Everyone.”

What had sparked my own interest was the story of my own grandfather, Edmond Greville; unless you are an expert on the history of French cinema, you are unlikely to have ever hear of him but he still enjoys an almost cult-like following for his work, half a century after his death.

I've been enjoying the series "Genius" on National Geographic about the life of Albert Einstein. The four of us ha…
The Mandate of Heaven

eGov Monitor Version

“Parliament”, said my distinguished friend “has always leaked like a sieve”.

I’m researching the thorny issue of ‘Confidence in Public Sector Computing’ and we were discussing the dangers presented by the Internet. In his opinion, information security is an oxymoron, which has no place being discussed in a Parliament built upon the uninterrupted flow of information of every kind, from the politically sensitive to the most salacious and mundane.

With the threat of war hanging over us, I asked if MPs should be more aware of the risks that surround this new communications medium? More importantly, shouldn’t the same policies and precautions that any business might use to protect itself and its staff, be available to MPs?

What concerns me is that my well-respected friend mostly considers security in terms of guns, gates and guards. He now uses the Internet almost as much as he uses the telephone and the Fax machine and yet the growing collective t…