Big privacy hits the mainstream

“The caricature of a company with significant market power that is willfully indifferent and hostile to consumer privacy concerns is outmoded. Big privacy is coming.”

Wave after wave of alarmist articles in the “Is privacy dead?” genre have desensitized the public to the prospect of an ever-decreasing sphere of private life. But such gloomy articles misrepresent the trend in privacy policy. Major industry stakeholders have determined that protecting privacy is both good for overall social wellbeing and good business. What’s more, meeting consumer privacy desires and expectations is becoming technically feasible through emerging “big privacy” methods. Industry has accepted that the question is not whether privacy will be protected in the digital age, but how and to what extent it will be protected.

lauren-henryIn 2016, the idea that privacy will be more reliably protected in the near future than it is now will step out of industry and academia and into general public discourse. The web is maturing — that is, conforming to many of the desirable characteristics of physical space. The early, unfettered web has given way to a web of walled gardens, platforms, and applications to meet consumer demand, build corporate coffers, and enable government regulation. A similarly stunning revolution in technical infrastructure and norms is coming for information privacy.

Privacy is not dying. It is hiring. Companies are in the business of addressing consumer demand, and consumers demand privacy. Surveys show that consumers want privacy and think negatively of companies that are perceived as caring little for it, but are unsure of the exact features of the privacy that they want. Privacy is an industry growth area because companies need specialized professionals to address the dual challenges of (1) figuring out the privacy consumers want in terms of specific policies, protection, and practices, and (2) understanding how to technically implement corporate privacy mission goals.

Industry groups, mostly notably the Industry Association of Privacy Professionals, have made spectacular gains in membership and certifications. The rise of privacy credentialing is a critical indicator to watch, as industry searches for individuals with the technical, legal, and policy credentials to handle the many types of privacy problems a modern company must address, and job seekers aim to specifically signal that they are prepared to do privacy work. The demand for privacy experts is not limited to entry- and mid-level positions. Chief privacy officers are becoming a standard C-level position at large companies, as they realize the inevitability of regulatory issues in the area, and seek to get ahead of such regulatory moves by showing real commitment to controlling privacy concerns. It has never been a better time to be a privacy professional.

It is far from clear that industry, acting without significant regulation or oversight, will provide a socially ideal level of information privacy. Many would argue that industry will need better incentives than are available at current law to do as much as they should to protect privacy. But the caricature of a company with significant market power that is willfully indifferent and hostile to consumer privacy concerns is outmoded. Big privacy is coming. The public will soon begin to notice, and hopefully to contribute to, the debate over how big privacy ought develop.

Lauren Henry Scholz is a Knight Law and Media Scholar at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.