Safeguarding the world's new currency; privacy requires a willingness and ability to take a different perspective on how data is and should be used.

Author:Clayton, Gary
Position:Cover Story - Statistical Data Included - Brief Article
 
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At the Core

This article:

* Discusses the global business issue of privacy

* Provides seven basic steps for responding to privacy issues

* Explains current international privacy-related laws and regulations

Privacy is perhaps one of the most important issues businesses face today. Personally identifiable information has become the world's new currency. It helps companies identify new business opportunities and target new products to specific customers. It helps them operate more efficiently and test new markets.

In today's global economy, powerful computers and vast databases have become mega partners to many companies, allowing them to track and store massive amounts of information in ways undreamed of only a few years ago. Personal information is available with just a click of a button, almost instantaneously.

And in the aftermath of the tragic events that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001, a new privacy landscape has emerged that will dramatically impact businesses of all types and sizes. The balance of privacy and security--the right to know or not know vs. the right to be safe--is likely to take on a new role of mass proportion and greater public focus.

The Bottom Line

Privacy is a bottom-line business issue. The ability to address consumers' and employees' privacy rights has become a critical factor for success in today's marketplace.

More than simply posting a privacy policy online or in a brochure and operating a secure server, businesses must realize that privacy involves a "system life cycle" view of how information is collected, used, and stored. And it includes a change in business attitude and perspective. This is particularly true in an increasingly global market, with new and powerful advancements in Internet technology and databases.

Privacy involves more than the Internet, however. It also encompasses how personal information is used, marketed, and distributed in the "brick and mortar" everyday world.

Privacy does not mean that an unscalable wall should be placed between consumers, employees, and businesses. Businesses want to know their customers. Reliable and accurate data is essential to maintaining a competitive edge and keeping customers happy. Customers, however, must be able to trust how their personal information is used.

To effectively manage the personal information of both customers and employees, companies must gain a new understanding of information flows and associated tools.

Privacy, like security, is a process. It requires a comprehensive look at the ways data moves within an organization. More importantly, it involves a willingness and ability to take a different perspective on how data is and should be used.

Why Privacy?

Each individual views privacy from his/her own unique perspective. Therefore, it has been difficult for legal scholars and privacy advocates to agree upon a single, simple definition. Dealing with the details of an individual's life is intensely personal, probably more so than anything else.

For businesses, privacy presents both a challenge and an opportunity. How can a business obtain and store the information necessary to customize its services and products without bringing on the distrust of its customers and employees? And, how can it guarantee safety to its customers, while at the same time reserving individuals' rights to privacy?

These are tough questions for today's businesses. How they respond to this dilemma is one of the fundamental challenges of the Information Age--and will shape the marketplace for years to come. The current scenario, however, also offers an opportunity for businesses--the chance to take a proactive approach to privacy issues, garnering goodwill from both customers and employees and positively differentiating themselves from the competition.

Public Perception

For years, businesses and governments viewed personal information as poker chips: the more they had, the better. Information was correctly perceived as a valuable commodity that could be used or sold for profit.

But times have changed. Businesses and governments now face a serious problem: Consumers are aware of how their personal information is being used, and many don't like it.

The explosion of the Internet has accelerated the importance of this issue. The Internet has not only increased businesses' access to personal information, it has made consumers more aware of how that information is used.

Numerous surveys indicate that consumers are concerned about privacy, especially online:

* 90 percent of registered voters said they find it more difficult to keep personal information confidential today. (Source: Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics Poll. 7-8 June 2000.)

* 82 percent of Internet users surveyed said they are concerned about the privacy of personal information they give out on the Internet, as well as the privacy of what they do on the Internet. Of these, 53 percent are "very concerned," and 29 percent are "somewhat concerned." (Source: Gallup Poll. The Gallup Organization-Princeton, www.gallup.com. September 2000.)

* Ninety-two percent of respondents from Internet-active households stated that they do not trust online companies to keep their personal information confidential. (Source: "Survey Shows Few Trust Promises on Online Privacy." The New York Times. 17 April 2000.)

* Ninety-four percent of Internet users want privacy violators to be disciplined. If an Internet company violates its stated privacy policy on personal information use, 11 percent of Internet users said the company's owners should be sent to prison, 27 percent said the owners should be fined, and 26 percent said the site should be placed on a list of fraudulent Web sites. (Source: Fox, Susannah. "Trust and...

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