Yesterday the Washington Post published an article based on an audit dated May 2012 describing violations of privacy rules by the NSA. As I read the article three thoughts occurred to me that a business can take away for their own privacy program. (Please note that these observations are not meant to comment on the unfolding NSA revelations.)
After introducing a privacy initiative things may look worse
One observation in the article is that “Despite the quadrupling of the NSA’s oversight staff after a series of significant violations in 2009, the rate of infractions increased throughout 2011 and early 2012.”
When an organization begins a privacy initiative you can expect an uptick in reported privacy events, incidents, and concerns. For example,
- if you are beginning a new privacy program you will be formally shedding light on privacy practices for the first time, the statistics may be surprising;
- if oversight staff is added you are increasing the number of eyes looking for incidents that are occurring and more will be reported;
- if you hold formal training or implement an awareness initiative then more of your employees will become sensitive to privacy requirements resulting in reports of events that were previously unreported.
These increased observations should be used to provide feedback to the training and awareness components of your program since the privacy requirements violated may require additional clarification. The incidents should also be used for feedback to refine the policy itself.
Human privacy errors do occur
For 2012 Q1 the audit reports 195 violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Of these violations, 123 (or roughly 63%) were attributed to “Operator Error”.
Human error is just a fact of life. In fact, The Ponemon Institute recently reported that 35% of data breaches are due to human error.
While technology can be created or tuned to capture many types of human errors, the best preventative measure may very well be awareness initiatives. Finding creative ways to keep privacy top-of-mind for your organization’s staff will help them to think twice before they intentionally perform an unacceptable operation or double check what they are about to do before they unintentionally make an error.
Privacy requirements need to be clear and unambiguous
There are times when we communicate policies that we leave some “wiggle room” in the comments we make. This leaves room for interpretation of the policy by an organization’s staff which fill in the gaps and may, over time, become accepted practices.
These interpretations then may become the basis of new procedures and reports without the authors of these procedures and reports referring to the original policy. The result may be that violations become routine in an organization even though everyone had the best intentions to be compliant.