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Archive for April 2014

Protecting Privacy When Everything Is Public

As a communications professional, my personal bias is to share more information, more often and to more people, but even I draw the line at releasing personal information. What’s interesting is how different my definition of “personal” may be from someone else. The incredibly personal information I see posted on Facebook often startles me, and is usually followed by a thought that someone should give people a heads up that no one needs to know that much detail about their personal…habits. In other cases, I find the snippets of information shared by my friends to be totally hilarious, and I feel connected to them, even when separated by geography.

Even I like to share some of the impromptu adventures I’ve had in my work travel, like the time my pants caught on fire (literally) when carpooling with someone I’d never met before. Or the night that a cockroach ran right across my chest while I was awake reading in my hotel room. It’s still personal information about my life, but not something I feel a need to protect to ensure my privacy.

It was fun tackling the question of privacy protection and proactive information sharing in Exchange. What I’ve learned from working on this Exchange is that determining the thresholds for defining personal information and protecting privacy effectively is sometimes tricky. On the flip side of FIPPA, relinquishing instinctive controls to allow for more proactive release of information can also be tricky. Advice from experts in Protecting Privacy When Everything is Public provides some guidance on defining personal information and emphasizes the importance of educating all staff about how it applies to their work.

Experts make it clear that all staff share a responsibility for protecting privacy and the most effective privacy protection occurs when organizations embed a commitment to protecting information in their culture. In my experience, most local government employees are very comfortable with protecting privacy. That’s not always the case when it comes to releasing information. I don’t know if it’s human nature or government nature, but withholding information seems to be more ingrained than sharing details, particularly when the news is bad. There may be concerns about political or legal consequences when the information being shared has negative connotations, or it could be that all of us want to avoid looking like mistakes have been made.

The reality shared by two local governments in Proactive Transparency is that being upfront and disseminating information proactively, even the negative news, was a positive experience. The demand for information and transparency in government is a trend that I believe will continue as we become increasingly networked online and in our communities. There is an expectation that citizens will be kept informed and, even more so, consulted. And the reality is the news will get out. Privacy will be breached. Mistakes will be uncovered. The key is how local governments handle each situation. Sharing the information you can, protecting privacy where you should, and being responsible about your information management appears to be a recipe for successful public relations and community engagement. It’s definitely not always easy, but I like going with a position of “Why wouldn’t we share that information?” as a starting point, rather than “Why do we have to?”