This week Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch was home in New Zealand to discuss privacy. Originally from Paeroa but now based at Microsoft's global headquarters in Redmond, Brendon is part of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative that was established by Bill Gates in 2002.

Bill Gates said then that Trustworthy Computing – reliability, security, privacy and business integrity – is the “highest priority for the company and for our industry over the next decade”.

Brendon is responsible for all aspects of Microsoft's privacy programme, including the creation and implementation of policies designed to protect customer privacy for products and services that are used by millions of consumers and organisations around the world. He also works to provide transparency on Microsoft’s approach, and to encourage broad adoption of privacy standards.

Sophisticated questions from participants at discussions in Auckland and Wellington show that there is a strong interest in privacy in New Zealand.

Cartoon © Chris Slane, all rights reserved. Used with permission. www.slane.co.nz

Privacy breaches involving technology have made headline news this year, and it's no surprise that identity theft and reputation are serious concerns. We heard that privacy is a necessary foundation for freedom of speech. Privacy expectations are individual. Most people are pragmatic and are willing to provide personal information to a trusted party in exchange for value, but some people have much higher expectations of privacy than others.

Privacy and cloud computing

We heard many questions about how cloud computing and privacy considerations intersect. It's encouraging to see that organisations are thinking about privacy when they consider storing personal information they are responsible for in the cloud. 

Privacy is also not a simple matter for cloud service providers. In the last year there have been Federal Trade Commission consent decrees involving Google and Facebook. Such incidents have raised awareness and interest in some of the potential privacy pitfalls of using cloud services.

Despite these incidents, we believe in a bright future for cloud computing. On the whole, the strong security standards of leading cloud services can potentially help with privacy. Each service is different, so it is important that service providers are as transparent as possible about their practices so that potential customers need a reasonable basis to assess each service on its merits.

For Microsoft’s flagship Office 365 cloud services for businesses, we provide a Trust Centre to help potential customers weigh up the service by explaining topics such as data location, access, auditing and security standards. Microsoft applies its Security Development Lifecycle (including privacy standards) and an Online Support Lifecycle policy to Office 365.

Microsoft has published suggested privacy questions to ask cloud service providers as a starting point for organisations in making their decisions, and we're supporting the development of a cloud code in New Zealand.

The future of privacy

Brendon discussed the impact that technology developments are likely to have on our thinking about privacy in the near future.

Responsible use of information offers the potential for enormous social and economic benefit, but changes in technology will demand diligence by innovators, and an active dialogue between consumers, organisations, and policy makers around the world.

It’s critically important to provide the flexibility to innovate, but also to ensure that people are protected and that trust, in organisations and of national laws, can be maintained in a world where data and personal information will become more valuable and more prevalent than ever.

Four trends that Brendon focused on were ubiquitous computing, natural user interfaces, big data, and personalised experiences.

Ubiquitous computing refers to the fact that many devices that we do not think of as “computers” will have computing capability, and they will be connected to one another and the Internet. We are already accustomed to smart phones that are small computers on which a phone calling is just another app. The same trend can be expected in power meters, home appliances, vehicles, and at work.

It’s not hard to imagine that much of what we see today in prototypes and niches will become widely adopted. From a privacy perspective, the data that is collected, and how it ends up being used, is a significant consideration.

Natural user interfaces refer to the increasingly natural way that people will interact with these devices. Mice and keyboards and touch will remain important, but voice and gesture based interactions with devices that don’t have other input mechanisms will become common.

From a privacy point of view, the biometric data that is a necessary part of these systems is particularly significant.

Big data refers to the enormous amount of data that is now being collected, and the ability for just about anyone to use cloud computing services to crunch that data.

Questions around how data can or should be used, and what it means for data to be “anonymous” or “identifiable” or somewhere in-between are being raised.

Personalised experiences are just emerging. Already, the results provided by a search engine are tailored to the engine's perceptions about the person doing the search, based on previous online activity tracked through cookies and by other means. Does a search for “Egypt” lead you to tourism sites, current news, or ancient history? The phenomenon of online services offering up what they think you want to see and editing out the rest has been referred to as a “filter bubble”, and it’s expected that websites and online experiences will become increasingly tailored.

People are already opting in to have their search results on Bing enhanced with what their Facebook friends have liked. They are choosing to share automatically with friends what they are reading on news sites. These trends are expected to continue.

Some of these trends are illustrated in two recent Microsoft vision videos. One relates to the Kinect for Xbox 360 sensor, and one to the future of productivity. Much of the technology shown in these videos already exists, at least in prototype form.

Privacy for consumers

We're often asked what consumers can do - and what we're doing to help protect privacy with smart technology.

Microsoft has published advice for people who wish to learn more about protecting their privacy and their reputation online. 

Many of our business and consumer products have features that are designed to help enhance privacy or provide choices about how personal information is used. One of the most important aspects of protecting privacy online is the web browser, so one area that is often of interest to consumers is the new privacy protections into Internet Explorer 9, including the unique in-built tracking protection capability.

As we've written about previously, basic computer security knowledge is also critical in this context.
 
By Waldo Kuipers, Corporate Affairs Manager, Microsoft New Zealand Limited

Cartoon (Getting Away from it All) is © Chris Slane. All rights reserved. Used with permission.