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Privacy Law and Policy Reporter

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Wilson, Stephen --- "Mapping privacy requirementsonto the IT function" [2003] PrivLawPRpr 20; (2003) 10(1) Privacy Law and Policy Reporter 11

Mapping privacy requirementsonto the IT function

Stephen Wilson

Full and ongoing conformance with the provisions of privacy legislation often has greater impact on a business’s risk management and technology management processes than the business may first realise. It is tempting to believe that because privacy issues are broadly business based, they are mainly the concern of the legal department or of audit. But current catchcries along the line that ‘privacy is not a technology issue’ should not be interpreted to mean that privacy has no relevance for the information technology (IT) function at all. There are multiple regulatory requirements of the privacy regime that directly impact most organisations’ information security policies, IT management functions, product/service development processes, and internal audit. These are the issues discussed in the first part of this article.

The second part of the article, ‘Mapping the NPPs onto business and technology management processes’ (which will appear in the next issue of PLPR), presents a detailed mapping of the 10 National Privacy Principles (NPPs) on to the sorts of management processes that in most organisations are controlled by the IT function. The mapping exposes the breadth and depth of impact that privacy compliance has on the IT function. It thus clarifies how each individual business should fine tune its processes and mobilise its IT function to satisfy the NPPs. It is hoped that such mapping can be repeated and built upon, leading to a common framework for analysing threats and risks to privacy compliance across all organisations.

Limitations of traditional privacy statements

Until recently, only government entities were formally subject to privacy regulation. But in 2000, the Commonwealth Government passed the Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act, which applies to all businesses turning over more than $3 million annually, and to all organisations in the health sector regardless of their size.

The response of many entities to their new obligations has been to engage lawyers to produce a ‘privacy statement’ defining the organisation’s high level undertakings under the law. Any approach informed by legal obligations will naturally be dry and minimalist. Thus a typical privacy statement looks something like this.

ACME Ltd shall comply with the National Privacy Principles as defined in the Commonwealth Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act 2000.

The only personal information collected by ACME is information necessary for performing our legitimate business functions. All personal information is collected by fair and lawful means. Personal information is stored securely and retained only as long as it is needed for business functions. No personal information is disclosed to any third parties unless required under law, is necessary to perform our business functions, or ACME is requested to do so in writing by the individual.

All individuals on whom we hold personal information are able to view and correct or update their personal information, unless there is legitimate reason to deny such access.

Having a lawyer draft the privacy statement is of course a good idea; the privacy laws are not to be trifled with. And the scope of most privacy statements is appropriately broad, since information privacy truly affects the entire business, not just IT. After all, only one of the 10 NPPs expressly deals with technology.

Yet the high level approach can lead to detailed security and technology management issues being overlooked. On close inspection, we see that every one of the NPPs can deeply affect a business’s IT function, policies and procedures, as well as all the interfaces between IT and the rest of the business.

So it is true that privacy affects the whole business, and the IT function cannot afford to assume that privacy compliance will be managed by some other department. In order to ensure robust, long term compliance with the privacy regime, it is vital that every organisation consider how they should mobilise their IT functions in response to the NPPs.

How should the IT function approach privacy risk management?

Privacy protection is indeed a broad based business issue. Properly managed IT and security functions are not in themselves sufficient to ensure privacy protection — but nevertheless they are necessary. So it is vital that the IT function be properly engaged in meeting the requirements of privacy legislation.

IT and security should strive to meet the following objectives in managing risks associated with the current privacy regime.

1. Analyse and specify in detail the organisation’s privacy safeguards and information disclosure protocols. In order to ensure ongoing compliance, the level of detail has to extend beyond what the organisation aims to do, to specify how will implement its privacy safeguards. Privacy safeguards and protocols may be written up within the organisation’s existing IT and security procedure framework, but a distinct ‘privacy management strategy’ is a better idea, to help concentrate the effort.

2. Be able to demonstrate to auditors and others that the organisation has systematically and proactively considered its privacy position, and that it has the means to continue complying with the Act, rather than merely pass a short term privacy audit.

3. Ensure that the organisation looks beyond the more obvious technological issues like access control and encryption, to cover information architecture, systems design, design review and internal audit.

4. Ensure that the organisation’s product/service development processes (as applicable) are fully informed by privacy protection requirements.

5. Obtain senior management sign off on the organisation’s documented position on privacy safeguards, as adjudged to be reasonable and practicable for the business.

The scope of privacy risk management

A comprehensive framework for privacy risk and technology management must consider a range of issues. The privacy management strategy or other documentation should cover the following.

The nature of the business and industry sector in the context of privacy protection — the organisation should construct its own framework in which to make robust, defensible decisions on issues like what personal information is required to support the business, what if any sensitive information is required,[1] which information is collected manually, automatically and by acquisition from third parties, and what reasonable assumptions can be made about their users’ consent to information usage and disclosure.

Interpretations of the qualities of reasonableness and practicality called for throughout the Act — the onus in the current regime is on organisations to implement measures that are ‘reasonable’ under their particular circumstances, and for them to decide what sorts of actions are ‘practicable’, especially with respect to obtaining consent for information to be used and disclosed. The light touch regime allows plenty of room for judgment in assessing these qualities, but significant responsibility attaches to this flexibility. Privacy auditors will expect management to have analysed the issues and documented their decisions in advance. Standards for reasonableness might in some cases be drawn from industry norms or codes of practice where available. Otherwise they can be determined from first principles by undertaking a formal threat and risk assessment (TRA) and/or privacy impact assessment (PIA).

All personal information collection methods should be enumerated, together with the organisation’s rationale for needing the information, and the appropriate controls associated with each method. It is especially important to analyse and document the less obvious types of collection such as transaction histories and audit logs, which are often collected automatically. Personal data collection can be considered under five categories:

(1) overt collection via application forms, web forms, call centres, face to face interviews, questionnaires, warranty cards and so on;

(2) automatic collection, especially via audit logs and transaction histories;

(3) generated data, which includes evaluative data and inferences drawn from collected data, for the purposes of service customisation (for example buying preferences), business risk management (such as insurance risk scores from claims histories) and so on;

(4) acquired data which has been transferred from a third party, with or without payment for the data, including cases where personal information is acquired as part of a corporate takeover; and

(5) ephemeral data, which is a special category of automatic or generated data, produced as a side effect of other operations. Ephemeral data is reasonably presumed to be transient but can be inadvertently retained. For example, some systems prompt users for pre-arranged challenge-response information — classically their mother’s maiden name — when dealing with a forgotten password. The data provided can be left behind in computer memory or logs, or even scribbled on a sticky note by a help desk operator, and this can represent a major privacy breach if it is not protected from unauthorised parties.

Design and review processes must explicitly check for compliance with the NPPs, especially around data collection forms, database design, and audit logging. If the organisation has a formal product or service development process, then all stakeholders engaged in that process should be aware of privacy requirements so that design decisions are well informed. For example, ad hoc changes should never be made to web forms which gather personal data without referring to the business need for any new information to be collected. Demographic data collection can be particularly troublesome, because of the temptation to ask for things like age, gender and locale to support sales and marketing functions. But under the privacy regime, no such data may be collected without there being an express business need for it, and appropriate consent mechanisms and controls being in place. The privacy management strategy, by documenting the nature of the business and the types of information it requires, provides a robust common framework within which to make robust defensible design decisions.

Certain standard items in most security policies and procedures directly relate to privacy protection issues — especially data archiving, data destruction, access controls and encryption. Security documentation must be written and reviewed where necessary, paying heed to the new privacy regulations.

Formal protocols for disclosing information to third partiesthe Act allows for information to be transferred to a third party under certain circumstances. It is generally expected that the third party will itself not subsequently disclose the information to further parties. To properly handle these conditions, formal protocols should be developed which anticipate the scenarios where information can be disclosed, and the controls which will be put in place to ensure compliance with privacy regulations.

The architecture of information systems may need special attention to meet privacy requirements. Particular examples of architectural issues under the privacy regime include the following.

— Where information is held on disparate or distributed systems, it is essential that a definitive record can be produced in a timely manner in response to a customer request, and that changes to that record can be promulgated back into all the organisation’s systems in the event of an update.

— Where data has been backed up or duplicated, the requirement to destroy personal information when no longer needed can be complicated.

— Audit logs can constitute a rich source of personal information, but logging functions have not historically been engineered to allow ready access of individual records. Such access can be necessary under the privacy regime, to permit disclosure, updates, destruction and so on.

Outsourcing of information systems operations or other IT functions can lead to personal information being held outside the organisation. The inter-relationships between privacy regulations and outsourcing are complex, somewhat ambiguous, and still under active consideration by the Privacy Commissioner.[2] In the current climate, organisations will benefit from tackling relevant outsourcing issues proactively, and with regard to their own business circumstances. The organisation should critically review the privacy policy and privacy protection measures of their outsourcer.

Documenting a full privacy management strategy

The concept of a full privacy management strategy goes beyond the typical privacy policy statement that many organisations have already developed. The major differences are set out in table 1 on p 13.

A suggested table of contents

A privacy management strategy might be written according to the following structure. The suggested structure (table 2 on p 14) is generic and would be modified to best suit the specific requirements and issues of the business. l

Stephen Wilson is Director, Identity Management, SecureNet <>.

The second part of this article, ‘Mapping the NPPs onto business and technology management processes’, will appear in the next issue of PLPR.


[1]. ‘Sensitive’ information is defined as that which either relates to race, ethnicity, religion and so on, or which is health related. The Privacy Act and its private sector amendment calls for special treatment of sensitive information.

[2]. See for example the Privacy Commissioner’s submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth Government’s IT Outsourcing Initiative, at < publications/subout.pdf>.

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