A data privacy primer – and why you should care

By Privitar - January 28, 2019

At Privitar, we believe that data privacy is fundamental both to innovation and to a functioning society. That’s why we’re so excited, on Data Privacy Day, to share more about what data privacy is – and why it is increasingly important.

When you think about data security, which is a closely related discipline to data privacy, you think about a technology that stops people from getting into a file, or a database. Privacy is different, because it’s about what people are able to learn once they are able to see a file or a database.

Think about a file that’s got your information in it; for example, that your bank keeps. If someone in your bank is allowed access to that file, they can see your private information. If a hacker breaks into that file, they can see your private information too. Once they have this information about you, they can use it against you. Security is about making that file harder to break into. Privacy is about making sure that the information in the file doesn’t reveal anything about the individuals in it.

Now let’s imagine that the same file has had privacy protection applied to it. That means that whoever was looking at it – whether they were allowed access or not – can’t learn anything new about the individuals whose data is in the file. No-one can look at a dataset in which I am included and say, ‘I know that this record belongs to Alex Mitchell, so I have a lot of new information about Alex Mitchell now.’

We don’t want individuals to be identified in a dataset, but we do want the data to be analytically useful. Let’s think, again, about your bank. You want them to design products (whether that’s apps or financial products) that are useful to you. And to do that, they need data that is useful enough – represents you and the way you spend and save – for an analyst to build a product that meets your needs. To keep your data useful, without you yourself being revealed, Privitar’s software “hides you in the crowd”, generalising the data points that can be used to identify you.

Here’s a practical example. If someone looks at raw data, even without details like a name, they can almost certainly identify you through your postcode and birthday. If I’m in a dataset, it’s highly likely that there’s only one person in my exact postcode area who was born on April 14th 1981. However, if someone looks at that data after the identifying attributes have been generalised, they’ll see lots of people in SE27 who were born in 1981. They won’t be able to pick me out of the file and therefore find out sensitive information about me. That example I used – of being the only person in my postcode with my birthday – is a well-known one in privacy research because 87% of people in the US can be identified by a combination of zip code, birthday and gender.

Privitar’s software helps companies who want to innovate with their data while maintaining respect for customer privacy. Often they need to respect customer privacy because of regulations such as GDPR, or internal policies. Ultimately, though, respecting customer data is the right thing to do. Companies that don’t respect customer data are increasingly seen as negligent, not just by their peers and regulators but by the public at large.

Technology is getting easier to use, but it’s getting harder to understand – and with that, awareness of the use of personal data has become mainstream. Businesses can respond with transparency about how consumer data is going to be protected and what it will be used for. That’s important, given that 78% of consumers agree that they feel “violated” if they learn their data privacy is not secured. Consumers take their data privacy seriously; businesses who do not are risking their reputation and the future of their business.

To find out more about the details of data privacy, check out our glossary – it will make your conversations about getting value from your data much easier.

You can watch Alexandra Mitchell, our Customer Insight Lead, talk more about what Privitar do here: