On Privacy: An Interview with Chief Privacy Officer, Alex Alben

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The subject of privacy is ascendant. When Washington State Chief Information Officer (CIO), Michael Cockrill, who is also now Director of Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech), began dealing with legislation related to drones during the most recent legislative session, he quickly recognized that drones give rise to more than technology matters. They raise serious policy issues around privacy. The policy and legal issues triggered by drones served as a catalyst for the State CIO to make privacy a strategic priority. In April of 2015, Governor Inslee appointed Alex Alben the State’s first-ever Chief Privacy Officer.  

Alex Alben spoke with WaTech Communications Director, Marilyn Freeman, about privacy and his new role with the state.

Freeman: Alex, you’re the first-ever Chief Privacy Officer (CPO) for the State of Washington. First, congratulations! Second, what exactly does your new job entail?

Alben: First, I’m very happy to be here, working with the people at Washington Technology Solutions.  I love our new logo!  Michael Cockrill has given me wide latitude to help define and prioritize the new job as I go along, but my first task is to work as a kind of “in house” consultant to state agencies who have privacy questions.  Second, I will work to advise the Inslee Administration on new technologies that implicate privacy and surveillance.  Third, I want to serve as a consumer advocate for Washington citizens with respect to their privacy rights and concerns.

In our context—state government—what’s the difference between “Privacy” and “Security”?

Privacy and Security are intertwined.  Security is the framework for protecting data.  Privacy is the kernel we are striving to protect.

Am I correct in thinking that while security certainly involves policy, it gets deeply technical, whereas privacy is more of a policy issue?

Privacy involves technology, policy and law.  The three elements need to work together. The more I keep abreast of security and technology issues, the more informed judgments I can make about privacy policy.

I know you’ve barely started as the CPO, what can you tell us about your plans for privacy and the state?

I’m already working on several fronts at once:  consumer education, giving advice to those who ask about new technologies that collect and store personally identifiable information, and creating a Privacy Advisory Group (we might call it a “council”) of people throughout the state who can give us valuable ideas on what is happening in the realm of privacy and data protection.

What are you most excited about, working as the state CPO?

The new logo for Washington Technology Solutions.   And the people.  I’m enjoying getting to know people who have such diverse jobs and backgrounds.

There are a handful of states with privacy officers, correct? Which states are those, and what kinds of activities do you see other states doing with privacy that might inspire our work (or your work)  here in Washington State?

So far, I have talked to the CPO’s in West Virginia and Ohio.  They both came out of the health care privacy world and were responsible for dealing with HIPPA issues.  My background is more weighted to technology and intellectual property law, so we come at the job from different career perspectives.  I have a lot to learn from them and they have already been helpful in sharing their experiences.

What’s an example of something they’ve shared that’s been helpful to you?

I learned that in West Virginia, where the state’s CTO approves all technology purchases, there is a privacy criterion.  A “Privacy Assessment” needs to be completed for every technology purchase.  This is how deeply privacy can be embedded in the procurement cycle.  I’m not saying we should do this here, but it’s interesting to know what other states are doing.

The Seattle Times recently published an opinion piece you wrote about protecting privacy in the digital age in which you argue for a constitutional amendment to safeguard personal privacy.  You write, “The abuses of power of the federal government and the unrestrained data-collection practices of modern culture argue for a new amendment to the Constitution that explicitly protects our privacy… The onus, in short, should be on government to prove its right to our personal data and not on citizens to attempt to stop complex and rampant data-interception practices.”  As Chief Privacy Officer do you see your role as one that will champion policies and support legislation to secure greater protection for personal privacy?

Yes, I believe that privacy should be the “default setting” for a services and applications that collect personal consumer data.  Industry needs to give consumer’s more granular control regarding data sharing, so that people understand where their data is going, how long it is retained and the scenarios where it will wind up in the hands of third parties.  We need to be thoughtful about this, of course.  We want to encourage world-leading new products and services, especially those created in Washington State.  So, part of my job will require reaching out to the tech sector and understanding their issues and concerns and product cycles.

Open data is an increasing important aspect of government today, and society at large. How do you see the state balancing the tension between an Open Data initiative and Privacy?

I love Open Data!  The more public information we disclose, the more consumers will feel—justifiably—that the state is providing a valuable service.  Open Data embodies many useful tools for citizens to better understand trends, geographies and information.  If we do a great job opening up data to the public, then perhaps there will be less pressure to compromise private data.  At least that’s my theory.

The open data and privacy juxtaposition is a kind of technical/policy dialectic—opposing ideas trying to resolve for the public good.  As you work on privacy, how will you work with the open data initiative, or will you?  Typically, are the folks dealing with privacy the same folks who deal with open data? And who are the individuals in agencies dealing with privacy –  the folks in IT or elsewhere in agencies?  

Typically, my sense is that these functions are kept separate.  People become “open data” advocates or “privacy advocates.”  But the beauty of working in the same office, as I do with Will Saunders, is that we can see each other on a regular basis and coordinate various initiatives on both privacy and open data.  Will can serve on my Privacy Advisory group and I can attend meetings on the Open Data initiative.  I’m not sure this type of collaboration would be possible if we worked in different offices within the bureaucracy.

What’s can we expect to see regarding privacy and the state by the end of the calendar year?

We’ll announce new initiatives regarding consumer education, both online and in print formats.  I’m also working to recruit people for the advisory council.   We want to draw on expertise from non-profits, government, academia and the private sector.  And I’m very excited to form the first privacy alias” for Washington State government, so that we’ll be able to convene the people from various agencies who work on privacy issues in some way or another.  This, I hope, will lead to a discussion of best practices.

Privacy alias, what does that mean exactly?

It’s an email list-serve that we have compiled.  We’ll be using it to coordinate meetings and messages.

What question do you wish I’d asked?

Grrrrrreat question! What are you reading right now:  “David McCullough’s wonderful new biography of the Wright Brothers.  And a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov.”

What question we’re you afraid I’d ask?

“What keeps you up at night?”  The answer:  An  Abyssinian cat, who likes to jump on my head at 4 in the morning. 

Alex Alben / Chief Privacy Officer for the State of Washington

Alex Alben has played a leadership role in the field of digital media and has shared his expertise in both teaching and journalism. He helped launch ESPN.com and ABCNews.com, and served for six years in senior management at RealNetworks. Alben worked as a researcher for CBS News in 1980 and went on to work for Mike Wallace at CBS Reports. In the 1990s, Alben worked as an entertainment lawyer for Orion Pictures and Warner Bros. He was a candidate for the U.S. Congress from Washington State's 8th Congressional District in 2004. A graduate of Stanford University and Stanford Law School, Alben writes for The Seattle Times and other publications on the intersection of media, technology, and politics. He is the author of both fiction, Our Man in Mongoa, a novel, and Analog Days—How Technology Rewrote Our Future

If you have questions or comments, please contact:

Alex Alben, Chief Privacy Officer: Alex.Alben@WaTech.wa.gov

Marilyn Freeman, Communications Director: Marilyn.Freeman@WaTech.wa.gov