Kathleen Styles is heading up a U.S. Department of Education effort to improve student privacy. Angela Moscaritolo reports.
After the lull of summer, the chatter of some 55 million students has, once again, enlivened classrooms at more than 100,000 public schools across the country.Schools maintain great volumes and varieties of sensitive student information – not just names, addresses and Social Security numbers – but also intimate details of a student's life, such as health data, teacher and counselor notes, discipline records and, of course, grades. The U.S. Department of Education (DoE), the agency charged with establishing and enforcing federal education policies, in April announced a series of initiatives aimed at safeguarding student privacy. As part of this effort the agency hired its first-ever chief privacy officer (CPO), Kathleen Styles.
Styles, now just six months on the job, is heading up a new division called Privacy Information and Records Management Services, dedicated to advancing the acceptable collection, use and disclosure of information within the department. In her role, Styles is working with states and districts to implement privacy precautions, such as minimizing the collection of personal information. Also, she serves as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the department's privacy, confidentiality and data security policies.
Styles says the agency's increased focus on privacy is necessary to deal with a recent “explosion of information about students” in federal, state and local school systems – thanks, in part, to the digitization of student data. Digital records can ultimately be even more secure than those in paper form, she says, but the move to computerize data comes with an entirely new set of privacy challenges that must be managed.
Also contributing to increased privacy demands within the education sector is the establishment of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS). Such systems, which are grant-funded and currently in place in 41 states and the District of Columbia, serve as statewide repositories of student performance and demographic data that can be used to track student progress over time and analyze the effectiveness of school programs.
“The challenge is how to use that information to improve education and increase accountability, while still preserving privacy protections for our children,” Styles says.
Like the Education Department, many organizations today have a CPO in place to manage data governance programs, and a core team working on privacy and data protection issues, says Trevor Hughes (left), president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). Too, privacy is often “extending throughout the enterprise,” Hughes says, with the help of so-called privacy liaisons within various departments, including IT, product development, marketing and HR, who manage some aspect of privacy as part of their overall job responsibilities.
Many experts agree that the alliance between the privacy and security teams is particularly important. The two disciplines are actually “two sides of the same coin,” as they share the common goal of protecting data from being used inappropriately, Hughes says. However, there often are nuanced differences between the two professions. While the stated goal of an information security professional is to protect the confidentiality, availability and integrity of enterprise data, privacy workers aim to ensure data is used in compliance with the law and, perhaps most importantly, consumer expectations.
The field of privacy, says Styles, combines the practical aspect of security with the exercise of answering theoretical questions about the appropriate uses of data. “I find it to be fascinating,” Styles says. “It's a field I enjoy greatly.”
Across the federal government, all agencies have privacy programs, though they exist in various levels of maturity, Styles says. For instance, not all agencies have a CPO, let alone one with executive-level authority, such as Styles has. At some other agencies, privacy exists within the legal or IT departments, instead of being a standalone office.
“An emerging best practice is that privacy is separate,” Styles says.
The rise of a profession
Looking back, there have been individuals working on issues related to privacy for decades, says IAPP's Hughes. In the early 1970s, however, there weren't many pros specifically focused on privacy, besides a handful of lawyers working in government. At the time, much of this work revolved around the creation of the Privacy Act of 1974, which governs the collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personally identifiable information maintained by federal agencies.
Within the private sector, the profession began to take hold during the dot-com boom, Hughes says. “Not until the 90s did we see corporate America recognizing the need for specialists in the field of privacy,” he says.
At the end of the decade, there were still fewer than 150 privacy professionals in the United States, Hughes says. By 2002, when Hughes came on board as executive director of the IAPP, the organization had around 500 members. Today, its base has grown to more than 9,000 across 70 countries.
“It has been a story of very significant growth year after year, with so many factors feeding into that growth and helping to build the profession,” Hughes says.
An influx of privacy and data security regulations applying to individual business sectors and states have been largely responsible, experts say.
Also driving the profession is the near-light-speed pace of technological innovation. As a result, new privacy concerns crop up almost daily and are garnering more and more attention from both consumers and policymakers. The rise of social media, online behavioral advertising, mobile devices and cloud computing, for example, have all raised questions about the proper collection, storage and use of personal data.
Still, the majority of privacy professionals are employed within large organizations, according to the IAPP's 2010 Salary Survey. The poll of nearly 1,000 members found that 64 percent of respondents work at organizations with 5,000 or more employees.
While large companies in the United States are focusing on privacy due to brand concerns and strong enforcement of state and federal regulations, many small organizations are still struggling with such demands, says Andy Serwin, chair of the privacy practice at Foley and Lardner, a Milwaukee-based law firm, and executive director of The Lares Institute, a technology and information governance think tank.
Some small businesses don't have a handle on the privacy laws with which they must comply, he says. Others simply do not have sufficient resources necessary to build out a privacy program within their organization.
Perhaps there is no better person to discuss the evolution of the privacy profession than Jennifer Barrett Glasgow (left). That's because she is widely considered to be the first-ever CPO and on the front lines today of an ongoing debate over internet privacy issues.
Two decades ago, Glasgow was tapped to create a privacy program at the marketing services firm Acxiom. At the time, Acxiom had just acquired a data company called InfoBase, which maintained a repository of customer intelligence that was gathered from public records and surveys for marketing purposes. Now in the market to sell data, company leaders quickly realized they had to learn how to do so appropriately, while also generating revenue.
“It was in 1991 that I was asked to look at this thing called privacy and what it meant to the company,” Glasgow recalls. “I started out thinking it would be a 12- to 18-month project to figure out what we should be doing. And here I am 20 years later, though it's a very different scope and scale.”
Many of the regulations with which the company must currently comply didn't exist even five years ago, she says. For a global firm, navigating the changing regulatory landscape requires a dedicated team of personnel and constant monitoring.
These days, the organization has a global privacy team of about 15 employees, organized geographically by region, focusing on the Americas, Europe, Asia-Pacific and Northern Africa. The group establishes policies based on regulations, recommendations and industry best practices. It also helps to roll out the policies across its individual lines of business, which are ultimately responsible for maintaining compliance.
The privacy department also functions as an internal auditor, conducting periodic compliance reviews, Glasgow explains. As the company considers acquiring new products, the team conducts impact assessments to ensure compliance with company policy can be achieved.
Besides the growth in federal and state regulations, one of the changes impacting Acxiom's privacy program is the surge of so-called passive data collection, Glasgow says.
When browsing the web for products or services, a cookie, or small data file, may be placed on a user's computer to allow advertising firms to silently track the URLs that user visits, as well as the date, time and duration of each visit. This data collection helps advertisers increase the effectiveness of their campaigns by serving consumers ads based on their preferences.
But, it has sparked an intense privacy debate that is currently playing out in Congress. A “do-not-track” bill, introduced in the U.S. Senate in May, would offer web users the option to prevent advertising and marketing companies from collecting information about their web-browsing activities.
The Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., is widely supported by a number of U.S. privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Members of the online advertising community, however, argue that such a law would hamper innovation and say the industry's self-regulation of such advertising has been effective to date.
Ultimately, advertising firms, like all companies that collect sensitive information, are obligated to protect consumers' data and consider privacy issues in any new products and services they offer, Glasgow says. One of the questions privacy professionals must ask themselves is how much data stored on their networks is too much.
“There's no-one-size-fits-all answer, but you need to be thinking about that,” she says.
Back to the books
One of the greatest challenges facing those in the field today is that current laws do not always adequately address or clearly respond to today's privacy questions, says IAPP's Hughes. Many of the existing laws were created before the advent of today's latest technologies and business models.
Those in the education sector are currently dealing with this reality head on. As part of its commitment to better safeguard student privacy, the DoE has proposed several clarifications to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law enacted in 1974 to protect the privacy of student education records.
Currently, FERPA applies to schools that enroll students in K-12 and higher education. There has been confusion, though, about whether agencies and service providers that do not enroll students, but have received permission to work with pupil data as part of research projects, should have to comply with the law. The newly proposed changes would extend the law to all entities with access to sensitive student data.
Additionally, under the DoE's proposal, high school administrators would be able to share student achievement information to track how their graduates perform in college. States would also be able to enter into research agreements on behalf of their school districts to measure the success of programs. The department says the changes will give states the flexibility to share data for research purposes and also increase accountability for those with access to student information.
Critics of the proposed changes argue that they could actually hinder privacy by making it easier for states to collect and share information about students. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, for example, has opposed the plan, noting that it would “substantially increase the number of entities allowed to access personally identifiable student information without the student's or parent's consent.”
The DoE is currently reviewing the 274 public comments it received during the 45-day period the proposed regulations was open for feedback, Styles says. The responses have been “all over the map,” she adds. Some commentators support the changes and say they strike the right balance by allowing for effective use of data while protecting privacy. Others, meanwhile, say the changes would erode privacy.
A final version of the law is due out by the end of the year, Styles says. She hopes it will provide more clarity and guidance to schools.
As part of her role, Styles says she aims to bolster and standardize data management practices within the agency and provide guidance to help state and local school systems improve their own privacy postures.
For now, a number of privacy questions remain unanswered, though, such as what kind of impact the FERPA changes will have within the education sector and whether regulations to reign in behavioral advertising will ultimately materialize. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – the privacy profession is burgeoning in the United States.
“I applaud organizations that are embracing the idea of CPOs and privacy professionals,” says IAPP's Hughes. “There is no time like the present to pay attention to privacy.”
Microsoft: Privacy by Design
Privacy, like security, must be considered during the development of new products and services – not after the fact, says Brendon Lynch, CPO of Microsoft. The approach, dubbed Privacy by Design (PbD), recently has risen to popularity within the privacy community, but is actually an idea Microsoft embraced when it started its privacy program more than a decade ago, he says.
PbD was used, for instance, in the development of Microsoft's new, controller-free gaming and entertainment console, Kinect for Xbox 360. The system, which lets users control video games with their own voice and body movements, posed some unique privacy challenges due to its use of facial and body recognition technology to identify players.
“The outcome is that we delivered it in a way that biometric information is only used on the device and never shared back to a server, and not stored in a way that can personally identify anyone,” Lynch says.
The Redmond, Wash.-based computing giant has more than 40 full-time privacy professionals and another 400 individuals who oversee privacy policies as a part of their role, Lynch says.
“If we aren't responsible custodians of information, it's going to have a significant impact on our business,” Lynch says.