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The Privacy Advisor | Wheeler to PSR: You're the people who will save democracy Related reading: Tracking the politics of US privacy legislation

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If there was one message former U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wanted to impart on the privacy and security professionals convened in Las Vegas, Nevada, this week, it was that saving democracy is their role. "You are all positioned in such an incredibly unique environment," he said, imploring them to recognize the importance of their jobs. 

Wheeler used his keynote address at the Privacy. Security. Risk. conference to explain that though these might seem like unprecedented times, we've been here before. Just look at the "original" information revolution, Wheeler said, when Gutenberg introduced his printing press. Before its introduction, information had been "hoarded for use by the powerful in maintaining their power. All of a sudden it was distributed. Sound familiar?" In this digital age, we've found a way, via technology, to disaggregate and re-aggregate information. 

And in response to every revolution, there is upheaval, Wheeler said. New technologies will always drive social and economical upheaval. He pointed to Martin Luther's ability, with the advent of the printing press, to distribute ideas that would become the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. 

In the last 50 years, two trends have grown alongside each other: ubiquitous connectivity and the low cost of computing. And the intersection of the two now means everything is connected and everything computers, creating major privacy challenges.

"And that’s your challenge," Wheeler told the crowd. "That’s the daily reality you live with, because when everything connects and computes, there are huge privacy challenges, and that’s what you get to deal with. That is our generation’s tech drive upheaval. And it is our challenge to rise to that occasion and how we’re going to deal with it. You’re making history."

For those who may be underestimating the importance times we're living in, Wheeler said, "History doesn't look like history when you're living it." The amount of data that populates every single day means not that data is the new oil, a phrase that has become repeated so often in the last several years, it has almost exhausted itself. No, Wheeler said, data is not the new oil, because data is inexhaustible. 

"It's the first capital asset in history that is inexhaustible in both supply and demand," he said. "The challenge becomes, how do you deal with this 21st century asset in an era designed for exhaustible assets." 

Not only is the data inexhaustible, but half of it is also made up of information about individuals. 

So what do we do? What do privacy professionals do in this important era in which there's so much data and so much at risk? Wheeler said what we do is look to history. He pointed to locomotives, the way they revolutionized transportation and the problems that inevitably followed. Locomotives would spew sparks, hot cinders would land on homes nearby and set them ablaze. So, they eventually put a screen on top of the smokestack. They didn't wholesale stop locomotives themselves. 

And that's what Wheeler proposes the privacy and security profession help solve: Find the digital smokescreen. 

Wheeler proposed it's time to move from the concept of regulated consent to regulating conduct. To "reduce the burden, take it off the back of consumers" and make privacy a forethought and not an afterthought. The risk, he said, is democracy itself. He pointed to the rise in autocrats looking at the social upheavals of our time and saying, "I've got an answer for you." It's a dangerous place for a democracy to find itself. What's more, the business plan of the digital world encourages tribalism, not democracy. It rewards data grabs; those who own (and can sell) the most data own the most power. 

"How do we protect democracy when technology is taking us away from the [E pluribus] unum?" Wheeler posited. "What history says to be is we've been here before. Ordinary people like you and me, confronted by extraordinary situations have been able to deal with it, overcome it, and create the kind of society that we relish in today. We have that same challenge. And we can, no, we must, learn from those experiences to create the new rules that guide us in the digital 21st century." 

Photo by Cashman Photo

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