Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Privacy needs to be built into the product

Jacob Glick, Canadian policy counsel for Google Inc., has a good OpEd piece in today's National Post. I agree that innovators need to build privacy into their products, not only to manage their own risks but as members of society who have responsibilities for their users. I would say that responsibility is heightened for companies whose products are used by young people who may have an under-developed sense of privacy.

Privacy is in the product

This week, the National Post brings you a three-part series on the rocky place where the Internet meets the law. The question put to today's contributors: Given the proliferation of personal information on the Internet, especially on social-networking sites such as Facebook, how must Canada's laws adapt to ensure our privacy online?

When I moved to Ottawa four years ago, social-networking sites helped me keep up with my friends in Toronto and elsewhere -- in a way and on a scale that wasn't possible previously. Recently, I started micro-blogging on Twitter (mostly because I'm too lazy to blog more than 140 characters at a time) to share my thoughts on work-related matters and other miscellany. Through the Internet, we're reshaping the ways we do business, communicate and represent ourselves to the world. The good news is, we can embrace these changes without surrendering our privacy.

Privacy protection can and ought to be at the heart of innovative tools -- not only as a matter of legal compliance, but also as a principle of product design. This is what Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, calls "Privacy by Design."

Questions about the sufficiency of Canada's privacy regime, while relevant, miss the bigger picture. Privacy is best protected by good product design. In fact, Canada has a well-functioning private-sector privacy regime. The Internet is not a Wild West: Existing rules related to legal jurisdiction and privacy apply online, as they do in the physical world. Internet companies, just like their brick-and-mortar brethren, are legally accountable for the ways they collect, use and disclose personal information.

For example, street-level photography has long been part of cartography. With a quick trip to your local municipal archive, you'll discover thousands of photos, taken over decades, of our urban landscapes. For those of us who can't read maps, seeing the world at street level is the easiest way to get around unfamiliar locales. Google Street View takes this traditional discipline and integrates it with digital mapping.

Google's approach is to build products that harness the power of the Internet while protecting privacy for the benefit of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including tens of millions of Canadians. That's why we have built facial and license-plate blurring into Google Street View and why we make it easy for Canadians to request that we remove any image containing themselves, their kids, their cars or their homes -- even if the image is already blurred. There are privacy rules that apply to Google Street View just as they do to more traditional cartographers.

In addition to offering more accessible and useful mapping data, today's online applications provide exciting tools for collaboration and community building. They help us break through the alienation endemic to urban society and reconnect with our communities in new and fun ways. For example, here in Ottawa, online groups and web-sites give new parents a great support network and help them find local activities they can enjoy with their kids.

One of these innovative communications and collaboration tools is YouTube, a revolutionary platform that turned four this year. YouTube enables people to make their videos, professional or amateur, available worldwide. This ability can blur the line between the public and the private spheres, and Canadians get that. They also know that they are in control of what they post on YouTube -- and with whom they share it.

That's why not every video on YouTube has to be made public. Some can be shared with a smaller circle of friends. That's also what Google has done with the recent launches of Google Latitude, our mobile feature which enables users to select people to share their location with, and our Interest-based advertising system, which was built with tools that allow users to specify which categories of ads they'd like to see (or not see).

Of course, to make sensible choices people must have products that let them make such choices. Innovators should therefore develop applications in which privacy is built in from the start, so that Canadians can control the parts of themselves they reveal to the world.

Regulators ought to hold companies accountable for their privacy practices. However, privacy ultimately should be about good product design -- not just about legislation, regulation or compliance. The best products and businesses will have transparency and user choice built right in. Canadians should expect it.

-Jacob Glick is Canada policy counsel for Google.

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