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If privacy regulators and consumers want transparency and accountability from corporations, companies need more than a stick: They need a carrot, too.

That’s according to Stephen Deadman, group privacy officer and head of legal for privacy, security and content standards at Vodafone Group. During his keynote at the IAPP Data Protection Intensive in London on Wednesday, Deadman said companies’ approaches to privacy in the last decade have been based on the bare minimum of tactical legal compliance rather than meaningful integration from the ground up, but changes in technology and in consumer expectations are starting to shift that model.

Deadman joined Vodafone in 1997 and found its privacy program to be “a complete mess,” he said, lacking any sort of strategy or vision. While the company had teams in place, its approach to obtaining consumer consent was “completely ad hoc and executed by junior business leads and business lawyers.”                  

So he set off to change that, founding the company’s first international network of privacy and security law experts. He had a vision of where he needed to take the company: He needed to transform the way customer permissions were obtained in a way that promoted transparency. But first, he’d have to get the company’s board, well, on board.

“People like to ask me, what is the minimum I have to do to stay out of trouble? How do I get from A to B in the shortest possible route?” he said. “But the real question they should be asking is not how we get from A to B but how do we get from A to Zed?”

In the last 15 years, he said, companies have made major investments in security, while the same hasn’t proven true for privacy. He pointed to a 2013 Ernst & Young survey that found companies spent three percent of their total tech budget on privacy while 18 percent was dedicated to security operations.

But that’s because regulations drive company behavior, Deadman said, and legal counsel is generally tasked with compliance, meaning little focus on companies’ strategic methodologies and approaches.

“There’s very little incentive for many lawyers to be innovative, to make judgment calls on privacy impacts or incorporate Privacy by Design. Those things require different skill sets.”

Europe’s current data protection regime creates rules without offering incentives, and that’s a problem, he said. It means companies disown the issue of privacy rather than seeing it as a competitive differentiator.

But in the last few years, Vodafone has shifted its thinking and adopted a new approach, one that’s less about compliance and more about fairness, trust and safety. It’s incorporated a privacy-risk management system composed of comprehensive privacy processes and created a “culture of privacy” across the organization.

As seems to be an increasing corporate trend, privacy shifted from being an obscure legal topic to being “an urgent and vital issue discussed in the boardroom.” The advent and proliferation of the mobile phone—or “intimate computers,” as Deadman calls them—has helped to accelerate that, as has media attention to privacy issues and the resulting consumers concern and awareness. The economy around digital data also plays a role.

As a result, companies are starting to figure out that they need to put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their data, because currently, “the whole debate around personal data is anchored in fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Deadman said.

When it comes to the impending data protection regulation, policymakers must think carefully about how to create rules that don’t stunt innovation, that allow companies flexibility and creativity in how they practice privacy, even if that means a bit of ambiguity and less direct supervision, he said.

“We need to use regulation as both a stick for momentum and a carrot for innovation. We should give companies options to build new codes of practice that address specific contexts,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal of regulation should be to give company executives reasons, not just to turn to lawyers and ask narrow questions about the ‘minimum to avoid trouble’ but bigger questions of how we create better privacy options for our customers.”

Doing that takes the right approach, he said.

“Don’t show up and tell them what the rules are; show up and tell them where you are and where you want to get to,” he said. “That’s how we’ve managed to get them to sit up and pay attention.”

Written By

Angelique Carson, CIPP/US


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