I recently had a conversation with a colleague about privacy impact assessments, PIAs, and the tools available to administer them. We quickly became philosophical, trying to weigh whether a generic tool would work or if something that is organization specific is necessary.
What do PIAs offer?
Generally speaking, PIAs offer a way to gather information about changes in the collection, processing, sharing, and destruction of personal information kept by an organization. The information about these changes allow privacy pros to decide if the proposed approaches are compliant with an organization’s privacy policies as well applicable statutes and regulations. Based on this evaluation, the proposed application or business process changes will be approved or modified as appropriate. PIAs should be used for new applications and business processes as well as changes to existing operations.
A PIA can take many forms. I have seen document-based questionnaires through elaborate IT applications. The implementation selected should be based on the acceptability of the PIA process to your organization, the maturity of your organization and process, the resources available to the organization, and, of course, your organizational culture.
No matter the implementation method selected, a PIA should give enough information to the privacy pro doing the evaluation to understand the benefits and risks associated with the new uses of the personal information.
With increasing frequency, I am seeing risk determination and ownership placed in the business and operational areas of an organization that access and use personal information. This is opposed to a traditional model where the ownership of risk lies in a centralized privacy function. While the accountability for privacy remains with a centralized organization in these cases, the Privacy Office for example, the responsibility for implementation of privacy protections and practices is becoming distributed.
A PIA, therefore, should not only provide information to a privacy pro in a centralized function, but should also provide an indication of compliance and risk to the submitting person or group prior to submission of the PIA to a centralized privacy function for evaluation. Providing this indication will serve as an educational device for the groups submitting PIAs as well as reduce the PIAs submitted to the centralized privacy function that end up requiring some form of remediation.
Organization-specific or generic PIAs?
As the International Association of Privacy Professionals points out, a privacy program needs to be specific to an organization. Even two companies in the same industry with the same products will have unique programs. The basis for this statement is that the organizations may have different risk tolerances, different infrastructures, different business processes, and (of course) different people with unique experiences in their backgrounds.
In addition to the information that is gathered and how it is evaluated, how the PIA is administered is vital to its acceptance. Defining a mechanism that is perceived as rigid, time-consuming, or bureaucratic will be rejected in most organizations. As a result, finding or developing a tool that fits your organizational culture is a consideration when deciding how to implement with a PIA process.
Given the uniqueness of privacy requirements, programs, and risk tolerances, I suggest that a PIA must be organization specific. While a generic tool or process may be used as a foundation to establish a PIA approach, an organization must be prepared to invest time and resources to adapt the tool or process to their particular needs.
PIA implementation advice
If you are just implementing a PIA process, I suggest you take take small steps. Through a simple survey process and the provision of feedback, show how a PIA can provide value to your organization. Through refinements, adjust the process to provide additional value to the teams your privacy office is supporting. Through this approach you will get buy-in for the extra effort that the PIAs will need and avoid being labeled as “simply more paperwork”.
If you decide you are ready to select or build a tool to increase the automation of your PIAs, have those people that submit PIAs be part of the tool selection/definition team. Make them part of the decision-making process; after all, they will need to use the tool and probably have a perspective on the process that is different from the one held by the privacy office.