When the Russian military invaded neighboring Ukraine 24 Feb. 2022, western defense analysts were in near-consensus that Ukraine would collapse in a matter of weeks, if not days. Though questions remain about how the conflict will ultimately conclude, a year into the invasion, the need to secure Ukrainian citizens' personal data has often taken on a life-and-death importance.
Teaching the teachers in privacy
PrivatBank senior data privacy specialist Dmytro Korchynskyi, CIPP/E, CIPM, FIP, and his colleagues at Privacy Hub, the nongovernmental organization he co-founded, launched Ukraine’s first "Privacy Academy" in the fall of 2022. Privacy Hub received support from the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation as part of its "EU4USociety" project, funding from Sweden paid through the UN Development Program’s "Digital, Inclusive, Accessible: Support to the Digitalisation of Public Services in Ukraine," and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine.
Korchynskyi said the goal of the academy was to educate and train their country’s leading cybersecurity academics in cutting-edge privacy techniques and practices, so they can start university courses to train the country’s next generation of privacy professionals. Organizers said Privacy Hub will eventually develop advanced courses that will be continuously updated to reflect the newest industry developments for professors to build lessons around.
The Privacy Academy was held 12-16 Oct. 2022, and the first class comprised 30 professors and six post-graduate students, out of a pool of more than 300 applicants, hailing from 25 universities across Ukraine. Participants were divided into six group of privacy scholars in the areas of domestic law, international law, cyber security, the medical and healthcare fields, journalism, and marketing. Privacy Academy lectures included the basic concepts of privacy and data protection, legal bases for data processing, data controller responsibilities, the operational and legal sides of privacy, and privacy by design.
"In Ukraine, we lack a privacy culture because of our history as part of the Soviet Union where there was no such thing as privacy," Korchynskyi said. "If you look at the buildings that were built in the Soviet era, the walls are paper thin. Regular citizens of Ukraine do not really understand the value of privacy, the value of their personal data — why those things are critical for actual democracy — so we’ve been trying to tackle this problem for three years."
Korchynskyi said each group of scholars participated in industry-specific trainings led by professionals from Big Four accounting firms, who presented remotely from London, as well as other privacy professionals from across Europe.
"The Privacy Academy was about sharing values that we’re well-versed in but are still fairly unknown to most Ukrainians, like data privacy and personal data protection," said Privacy Hub’s Grant Manager Polina Parakhina. "We want to recruit people to be involved with the process of creating a privacy culture in Ukraine by teaching our young professionals in different industries about its importance."
Privacy Hub organizers of the event said the idea to launch the Privacy Academy was first hatched in 2021, but the war dashed the original plan to hold an in-person Ukrainian Privacy Academy program during the summer.
"We had this idea that we were going to gather all of these professors in one place and give everybody a chance to network by offering a whole week dedicated to privacy and creating community," Korchynskyi said. "After the war started, by the summer, we understood the situation had stabilized. But the day before the academy was supposed to kick off, Russia bombed us, and it was one of the most severe bombings since the beginning of the war."
Korchynskyi said several lecturers from Germany flew into Kyiv to participate in the conference in person. One speaker was Jack Tinker, CIPP/E, CIPM, FIP, a security management and data privacy consultant with T-Systems Multimedia Solutions. Tinker said despite the risks of traveling to Ukraine, he felt it was imperative to help the country become more educated about privacy and cybersecurity, especially critical public infrastructure IT systems.
"It's important to support the country in this difficult situation and give something back, even if it was just my knowledge of privacy and data protection," said Tinker, who was born in Russia and emigrated to Germany as a child. "There is a need to promote a greater understanding of data protection and the importance of protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals in Ukraine. Privacy Hub has been advocating for this idea for a long time, and I am always inspired by their initiatives."
However, the start of the academy was thrown into chaos when Korchynskyi said he found himself crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with Tinker and other guests inside the Kyiv air raid shelter during a Russian attack. He credited the quick thinking of Parakhina and Privacy Hub’s interim CEO Natalia Nikolenko for shifting the academy to a virtual set up with hours to spare before it was scheduled to start.
"I was sitting in a bomb shelter with people from Berlin, hiding from the blasts that we could feel," Korchynskyi said. "Natalie and Polina took on an enormous effort to make the academy happen, because they had to recreate the whole program from being offline in the span of 12 hours."
Nikolenko is based in Odesa. Prior to the interview with the Privacy Advisor 21 March, Korchynskyi and his colleagues heard air raid sirens as they sounded in cities around Ukraine. Shortly after the interview, Russia attacked Odesa in a missile strike.
"All of our participants were very optimistic and eager to gain new knowledge to pass on to their students, and they inspired us and lifted our spirits," Nikolenko said. "Despite the circumstances we face, having our experts participate both in-person in Ukraine and remotely was also a major inspiration for us."
Resistance with privacy
Still, the war looms over all aspects of every day life in Ukraine. Korchynskyi said he is reminded of the war's omnipresence with every passing thought of his Privacy Hub co-founder Vlad Nekrutenko, CIPP/E, CIPM, FIP, who was instrumental in planning the Privacy Academy. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, Korchynskyi said Nekrutenko quickly volunteered to fight and enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces. He currently serves on the frontline in the country’s eastern regions.
"On the final day of the Privacy Academy, we were fortunate to have Vlad join us online," Korchynskyi said. "Despite being stationed at the frontline in eastern Ukraine, Vlad made the effort to participate, and we were all delighted to see him. In times of peace, Vlad is a fighter for human rights, especially the right to privacy, utilizing legal frameworks, regulations and ethical practices, and now he is fighting for our future as a country."
Korchynskyi said launching the Privacy Academy and laying the groundwork for privacy to take hold on their country took on an additional layer of urgency following the invasion. However, he said privacy in Ukraine has become a grave matter for his fellow citizens living under Russian occupation, explaining dozens, if not hundreds, of civilian lives might have been saved if Ukraine had more of a culture of privacy and data protection prior to the Russian attack.
Also, Privacy Hub has taken on a small part of the war effort itself, Korchynskyi said. Members of the organization have been training volunteers behind enemy lines to teach members of their communities how to be safe while browsing online.
Korchynskyi said a repeated dynamic in the war so far has been Russian military occupations of various towns, and searches of computers and smart phones belonging to civilians. These searches included detaining or executing anyone deemed to have pro-Ukrainian sympathies, relatives of known military members and veterans, as documented in a joint investigation by the Associated Press and Frontline.
"We're not able to fire shots directly but we can help shield people from a lot of digital threats, and I believe certain steps like having basic privacy awareness can save lives in these times," Korchynskyi said. "We know for a fact that when Russian troops come to the occupied territories, they scan through your phone and they scan through your social media. If you are aware how to protect your gadgets, how to protect your privacy — that can save your life."
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