The worst privacy misconception of all

I was discussing definitions of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) with some lawyers today, one of whom took exception to the US General Services Administration definition: information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other personal or identifying information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual”. This lawyer concluded rather hysterically that under such a definition, “nobody can use the internet without a violation”.

Similarly, I’ve seen engineers in Australia recoil at the possibility that IP and MAC Addresses might be treated as PII because it is increasingly easy to link them to the names of device owners. I was recently asked “Why are they stopping me collecting IP addresses?”. The answer is, they’re not.

There are a great many misconceptions about privacy, but the idea that ‘if it’s personal you can’t use it’ is by far the worst.

Nothing in any broad-based data privacy law I know of says personal information cannot be collected or used.

Rather, what data privacy laws actually say is: if you’re collecting and using PII, be careful.

Privacy is about restraint. The general privacy laws of Australia, Europe and 100-odd countries say things like don’t collect PII without consent, don’t collect PII beyond what you demonstrably need, don’t use PII collected for one purpose for other unrelated purposes, tell individuals if you can what PII you hold about them, give people access to the PII you have, and do not retain PII for longer than necessary.

Such rules are entirely reasonable, and impose marginal restrictions on the legitimate conduct of business. And they align very nicely with standard security practice which promotes the Need To Know principle and the Principle of Least Privilege.

Compliance with Privacy Principles does add some overhead to data management compared with anonymous data. If re-identification techniques and ubiquitous inter-connectedness means that hardly any data is going to stay anonymous anymore, then yes, privacy laws mean that data should be treated more cautiously than was previously the case. And what exactly is wrong with that?

If data is the new gold then it’s time data custodians took more care.