by Kim S. Nash

Privacy: A CIO’s Next Competitive Weapon

Feb 10, 20123 mins
Data CenterLegalPrivacy

Google says that in-context privacy tools should supplement traditional privacy policies to give users more insight and control

A lawyer at Google had some interesting things to say about privacy this week, namely how protecting customer data could be a competitive advantage. Privacy should be a big concern for CIOs, especially for the 17 percent of whom lead customer service in addition to IT, according to our 2012 State of the CIO survey, and to the 91 percent of whom don’t, sadly, spend much time studying customer needs to identify commercial opportunities. If IT executives shift their thinking on privacy from it being an onerous regulatory issue to it being a valuable service, I believe we might see some positive changes in customer relationships. We might even see new ways to generate revenue. 


Keith Enright, senior privacy counsel at Google, says that the “Don’t be evil” company wants to build privacy controls into products and services at the start, so that users see plain-English explanations of what’s happening to their personal data as they move around a Website. This kind of in-context privacy is easier to understand than long, legalistic privacy policies buried in administrative sections of a site, he says.

Verbose privacy policies that users read, or at least agree to, in a vacuum may cover the company’s corporate butt in litigation. But they don’t do much to protect or educate users. Google already provides a dashboard of tools to tune privacy settings – users can turn off Web browsing history or delete individual pieces of history.

But the next step looks different. Say you want to enter an online contest for a dream vacation. As you start to fill in the form, a box pops up telling you what the company may do with the information you’re about to type. The trade-offs are clear. “It’s extraordinarily challenging to make sure you get the right message in front of consumers so they understand precisely what you’re doing with that information,” says Enright, who spoke during a PricewaterhouseCoopers webcast this week about data privacy and protection.

Enright says new products could have more in-context privacy settings. Through a user interface, he adds, “you can be sure users are in control of their privacy actions and decisions.”

Google lawyers, in fact, are now part of the product design process, although he is quick to point out that no one wants to quash innovation. “To ensure a privacy program doesn’t impair innovation,” he advises, “don’t allow privacy requirements to be unilaterally mandated by the legal organization.” It’s a balance. “This needs to be a conversation, a running dialog between stakeholders.”

Of course, Google is also experimenting at the other end of the privacy spectrum — pushing boundaries. As my colleague Kristin Burnham reports, it is offering $5 Amazon gift cards to people who sign up for a new browser extension called Screenwise that shows Google the sites you visit and how you use them. You can’t buy even a vegetable peeler on Amazon for five bucks, but at least the trade-offs are clear.