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The Privacy Advisor | IAPP Westin Scholar Award helps build privacy 'credibility' Related reading: IAPP launches Annual Westin Scholar Awards



Editor's Note:

Editor’s note: The Academic Spotlight Series highlights past IAPP Westin Scholar Award recipients sharing their academic journey and higher education institutions with compelling privacy and data protection programs. The series is sponsored by the IAPP’s Academic Relations, whose mission is to help advance privacy and data protection curricula and transition students into careers in the discipline, emphasizing equity, inclusion and diversity.

Somya Bhagwagar, CIPT, CIPP/E, CIPM, was not among the norm for kids her age when asking for her first cell phone. She didn't want the newest and shiniest in mobile technology, she stayed old-school, asking for a flip phone — for more privacy protections.

"Back in middle school, it started as more of a 'paranoia,' for lack of a better word. I always thought I'm going to get hacked, because I was learning about these cameras that could turn on without you knowing and things like that," Bhagwagar said. The IAPP Westin Scholar Award winner for the class of 2020-21 noted that privacy piqued her interest from a young age and, motivated by concerns, she began educating herself.

She found little opportunity to advance her privacy knowledge in the classroom, until she discovered a privacy course at the University of Michigan under associate professor of information Florian Schaub. Although class was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which can make engaging with content a challenge, Bhagwagar said that wasn't the case with this course.

"That was the first course that I ever actually learned the history of privacy, learning about what the laws look like and why they are the way they are. I was super interested. Very captivated," she said.

Her interest caught Schaub's eye and he nominated Bhagwagar for the IAPP Westin Scholar Award, which supports students identified by professors as future leaders in the field of privacy or data protection. Bhagwagar graduated with a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan School of Information and obtained three IAPP certifications in six months, from January to June 2023.

Bhagwagar is currently working as a marketing insights analyst at CME Group, but said she still plays a role in privacy, helping to integrate privacy by design in the company's processes. She sees herself as an "advocate in the marketing realm" and anticipates pursuing a more privacy-focused role in the future.

"One of the things I would love to do is to educate other people on privacy, to increase privacy literacy," she said, noting that when she tells others about her interest in privacy, they often respond by asking why it matters or saying their data is already out there. "There’s so many ways to reach out to the community and I think privacy literacy might be a really unique way that I haven’t really tapped into yet."

Her interest in privacy lies in working to understand what data companies are collecting and using, and how. Bhagwagar said she comes at privacy with a "political and social justice lens," having been influenced by privacy happenings in recent social movements toward vulnerable groups. 

"I’m not one of those people where I don't have social media, I don't use a phone, I don't use Google. For me it's not about cutting off things that collect your data, it's about understanding what's being tracked and what's being collected," she said. "I think of it less as I have something to hide and more of I want to control what information about me is used and make sure I'm protected when it comes to free thinking and making my own decisions, not having other people make the decisions for me."

Bhagwagar said receiving the Westin Scholar Award enabled her to build credibility in the field and meet colleagues who were also Westin Scholars or members of the IAPP. As she works to transition to a career in privacy and data protection, Bhagwagar said she believes the IAPP certifications will help the transition.

"I would not have been as involved in privacy — not just at work, but in my free time as well — without this award," Bhagwagar said. "It let me spend my free time studying for the privacy certifications, attached credibility toward my privacy knowledge and helped me develop a community with those who were familiar with IAPP."

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