Data privacy must unify IT engineering, legal and policy objectives, CPO warns

Australia's adoption of privacy requirements is an "exciting" development that will finally bring privacy out of the realm of academia and into the fabric of organisational policy, McAfee's chief privacy officer has predicted as long-awaited updates to the Privacy Act 1988 take effect.

Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer with security firm McAfee, has a global role as a long-time privacy advocate and says Australia's decision to get serious about privacy – the new regulations provide for penalties of up to $1.7m in the event of a breach – makes the whole idea of privacy "real for real people".

"In Australia, a law with teeth and some specificity allows your data commissioner to proactively do things," she told CSO Australia. "It is exciting to us in privacy-land, because it does get the general public aware, and talking, and thinking. There is a lot of momentum [around privacy] now; it's not niche and it's not academic."

The new privacy regulations consolidate previously disparate guidelines around the treatment of personally identifiable data, imposing consistent conditions on private and public-sector organisations as well as clarifying rights and responsibilities around the data on all sides.

Yet Dennedy – who has been active in the global privacy environment for years and recent authored a book, The Privacy Engineer's Manifesto, on the subject – knows better than many just how difficult the transformation can be in real life.

She has watched European privacy authorities, for example, wrestle with that jurisdiction's notoriously-strict privacy protection even as underlying information systems managers struggle with the same technological challenges confronting their peers in Australia.

"In Europe the practice of privacy is really filling out a lot of forms," she said. "Germany is a bit more pragmatic, but you have a lot of people in legal offices who have never spoken to a technical person in their life."

"They're great at filling out forms and prancing about saying 'how good am I?' but they use phones and cross borders just like we do. When you peel back the covers, the data is the data. If you're not architecting and building it for privacy, you're not doing it right."

Engineering teams must therefore work more closely with legal experts to ensure that privacy protection is built into systems going forward – particularly as organisations increasingly involve external cloud and other service providers whose own privacy protections are also crucial to compliance with the new regulations.

"You need to partner with legal and technology trainings, and have training to understand how social engineering plays out, and understand the real liabilities," Dennedy explained. "The manifesto is to improve where you are now: if you think about what's missing in your innovation model, and model your data centres and things, you start to see gaps."

Filling those gaps requires careful policy revisitation and a willingness to bake privacy into traditional IT project-related practices.

"If you look at the basics of computer engineering, it turns out there are some standards that work pretty well," she said. "Universal markup language and metadata modelling, for example, will allow you to actually model and become situationally aware of data before you build it."

"If you take that and put it against a series of requirements – not just from a big-P policy perspective but by translating the legal and public-policy aspirational and penalty-type language into big-R requirements – it turns out that you have a pretty good architecture that allows you to actually model and become situationally aware of data before you build it."

Such transformation can take time, but Dennedy warns that in the current climate that's something Australian companies don't have much of.

"This week is probably the most important in Australia's data history," she said. "The commissioner made it very clear last year that he's not messing around. There has been plenty of warning; everybody knows this is coming; and he's going to come out swinging."

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