Tech, privacy and security: A debate we need to have

Naked CIO: It's time to think hard about the attitudes of technology companies towards privacy and security.

Image: iStockphoto/frenky362

Apple has announced it is fighting a court order in the US which would allow authorities to gain access to the contents of an iPhone as part of a terrorist investigation.

It amazes me that technology companies can put in place encryption that prevent these type of investigations — yet under similar circumstances a warrant can allow authorities access to homes, cars and personal effects without condition or compromise.

But this incident is just one of many that involves tech companies and privacy.

And the flip side is that so many other tech companies cite the importance of privacy and security when it suits them but yet collect, aggregate, sell, decipher and use personal data to forward their own strategic and financial goals.

They track location, usage behavior, habits and desires in order to benefit advertisers and support their own business and application development. Their privacy policies even mitigate their liability from the collection and security of this data and in some cases limit their responsibility for securing customer information.

SEE: Information security policy template (Tech Pro Research)

The fact is these tech companies survive and grow on disseminating personal information where is suits them, yet seem to want to be community activists when it doesn't.

They can achieve this through slick PR campaigns around encryption and fighting authorities on information disclosure — to offset the multiple legal battles in European courts and beyond that deal with customer privacy.

Years ago at a symposium a question was posed when Google was in its formative stages. Do you fear Google? It was an interesting question with even more interesting answers. I stood up and said 'Yes, because the moment you don't fear them you could regret it. By fearing them you recognize their ability to be too big and too influential within the fabric of our lives.'

Regardless of your geopolitical opinions these are fundamental question that needs to be asked. Are we now at the point where we have allowed these companies to own too much of our data without the recourse to reign them in?

As IT leaders within organizations that invariably collect information it is our duty to ask those questions of ourselves, too.

Information is valuable yet we need to be able to balance the need to understand our customers better with the basics of protecting their privacy.

At what point do we cross the line between collecting information to better inform decisions on business needs, and storing and analyzing data on individuals that compromises their understanding of what is appropriate?

The Naked CIO is an anonymous technology executive.

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