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The Modern Privacy Function: Balancing Strategy with the Operational

Our previous posts reported some initial conclusions from almost one hundred interviews of leading corporate privacy officers, regulators and other privacy professionals in five countries.

The second post explored one surprising finding—that the two countries in which privacy officers were most empowered were Germany and the United States, countries which couldn’t be more different in terms of their regulatory framework—and explored some of the reasons for privacy officer strength in Germany.

This final post explores a caution raised by privacy officers in both the public- and private-sector regarding particular risks created by attempts to ensure that privacy is part of high-level deliberations within a corporation—risks that must be managed in developing policy regarding privacy.

Specifically, our research looking at the work of privacy officers in U.S. federal agencies, found that injecting privacy into strategic organizational deliberations drives home the perception that privacy is a policy decision with unavoidable connections to politics and impact—for better and for worse—on the bottom line.

  • Thus, while privacy must be present in such deliberations, it can, if not handled well, interfere with the day-to-day work of operationalizing privacy which requires the trust of business units, an inside position at the table and a pragmatic approach. According to our interviewees, protecting privacy in the context of an agency’s activities requires privacy to be “de-politicized” and incorporated as well into the more bureaucratic processes of an organization.  Indeed, they spoke of the way that the high-level strategic perspective necessary for policy impact as somewhat in tension with the “daily practice” of privacy.
  • In discussing privacy impact assessments (PIAs) specifically, one interviewee explained that the iterative nature of PIAs, the need to be in the room with “legal, program and technical people” at the “formulation of the project” and the “trust and access” required for an effective PIA demand an insider position.  In the words of another, “you can’t get in the tent if you are totally independent,” and unless you are in the tent, you can’t “work to salvage privacy interests in implementation.”
  • Ultimately, then, a privacy office charged with carrying out PIAs and attempting to advance privacy in the context of broader organizational goals requires a “balance of independent oversight, while not being outside…you want the privacy person in up front and with enough status and experience.”  Advancing privacy through tools such as PIAs required the privacy office to “build trust internally, then insinuate [privacy] into the bureaucratic process.” The “CPO’s job is to bridge the gap between political/policy and career/bureaucracy,” for both are essential to protecting privacy.

The combined insights from our work suggest that privacy work takes many forms in the firm. It must be represented in strategic conversations for it is there that privacy may be both most at risk and most effectively protected. However, participation in these high stakes, contentious battles over the firm’s values must not derail the day-to-day work of embedding privacy into firm practice. This daily work requires trusted insider status, not independence. It requires full and early access and ongoing dialogue with business units. This sort of work, our research suggests, is best accomplished by a diverse set of distributed employees with privacy training who are nonetheless viewed as part of the business team—not a barrier to their efforts, but a partner seeking to ensure that privacy is seamlessly integrated. Regulation can play a role in facilitating the adoption of such a model within firms, but a statutory command to have a chief privacy officer is unlikely, on its own, to do so.

photo credit: Pulpolux !!! via photopin cc

Written By

Deirdre Mulligan

Written By

Kenneth Bamberger


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  • William L. Wells, MISA, CISSP, CISM, CISA, CRISC, Apr 10, 2013

    The third bullet above cannot be over-emphasized. Ultimately, then, a privacy office...requires a “balance of independent oversight, while not being outside…you want the privacy person in up front and with enough status and experience.” The price of not being a trusted advisor at the beginning of projects and initiatives is increased cost of design, build, implementation and maintenance. It's a "pay me now, or pay me more later" situation.


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