Privacy protection as enabling technology.

February 17, 2012

Privacy is often seen as a barrier to innovation. It's seen as something one has to comply to, instead of as an opportunity to create new business. It wasn't that long ago that security was viewed the same way: security measures were just considered a nuisance that made it impossible to get your job done efficiently. Companies were reluctant to invest in proper security. Nowadays, security is seen more and more as an enabler. Without proper security, Internet banking and e-commerce are simply impossible, while both create a steady revenue, either by cutting operation cost or by increasing sales. Seen in this light, investing in security is a no-brainer.

The question is: can we see privacy protection as an enabler too? What kind of business will become possible if proper privacy protection is possible? Or, turning the question around: what kind of business opportunities fail to materialise because of privacy problems. I think there are several.

  • Health care is a prime example, right now. Health care is very privacy sensitive, dealing with very personal information. Many ideas to apply ICT to make health care more efficient have failed to materialise over privacy concerns. Electronic patient records are simply unacceptable, and will not pass parliament, without proper privacy protection.
  • Related concepts like personal data vaults are currently under development (e.g. Qiy, Singly, etc. ). These also need proper privacy protection or else user will shy away from them. Moreover, new EU proposals for data protection regulation will put heavy fines on non-compliant companies. For companies whose primary business is to handle personal data, especially of EU citizens, this will increase the cost of doing business. Without proper privacy protection the risk will be too high.
  • By branding them as 'spy chips', public opinion has turned RFID tags into a privacy invasive technology. This has slowed down the development and deployment of RFID based applications. To protect their market, large chip making companies like NXP have already invested considerable effort in developing privacy protective measures for future generation RFID chips and contactless smartcards. The potential privacy threats of the Internet of Things are even bigger, but so are the business opportunities in the vision of an ambient intelligent future.
  • Finally I believe there is an opportunity for truly personalised web services and advertising. Current advertising methods still quite coarsely target an audience. Effectiveness (and hence revenue) can still be increased, but this requires the consent and participation of the individual users. Making the service clearly privacy friendly and giving the users themselves real control may win them over.

Other application areas are smart grids and cloud computing. For all these application areas, investing in privacy should be a no-brainer too. And I expect to see many interesting advances in the state of the art in privacy protection as a result.

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