JoAnne Stonier: Data is the New Currency

JoAnne StonierThe simplest cell phone call is a miniature data gold mine. Two people talking on their mobiles think they are having a simple conversation, but as they chat, data is being collected about their location, the time and length of their call, and possibly the way that information interfaces with their other digital activity.

The content of the call is important, according to JoAnn Stonier, global privacy and data protection officer for MasterCard Worldwide.  But it’s the metadata—data about data—that is of such high interest to a variety of parties. “It’s a different currency,” she says. “Data is the new form of exchange.”

Follow the inspirationEverywhere we turn we are leaving behind “digital breadcrumbs,” as Stonier points out, and everyone is “churning through thousands of bits of data to figure out what offers to give each of us next, and at some point, your content and experiences begin to be managed.”

Stonier does not like to be managed herself, so at MasterCard, she works to ensure that the company maintains an open and respectful relationship with the data of its customers.  

“My job is to be the voice of the individual,” she says. “We always start with the individual. What are our customers or cardholders going to experience?  What are they going to see? Do they understand what we are doing? That drives many of our decisions.”

Privacy has its own sensitivity spectrum, Stonier notes. Some people don’t mind sharing everything. Others are troubled at the thought of relinquishing even minimal amounts of personal information, and many others fall somewhere in between. It can be tricky to find the right balance. But she says that people have a right to know what data is being collected about them and how their information is being used.   

When we click “Agree” on an internet privacy statement we don’t always understand what the resulting data records look like. And enterprises who create data profiles about us can get it wrong. Even people who would like to be proactive about managing their own data often end up surrendering. Stonier says: “Most people are somewhat aware that someone is doing something, but they mostly give up because it is too difficult to figure out how to influence or change the decisions being made.”

Although privacy officers like Stonier have existed for almost two decades, she says that the tide of big data is expanding their role in an “unwritten space” where “new laws are being written right now.”

And those laws can be uneven because they often times lag behind the technology that makes them necessary. Furthermore, Stonier says there is growing tension between enabling commerce and innovation while protecting privacy for the individual. “The laws can sometimes be difficult to allow business to innovate, but they don’t always provide the individual with the protection that is intended,” she explains. “When regulators think about laws governing data, they think about big data companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, but the challenge is that the law applies to everyone, including the butcher shop down the street.”

As a global privacy officer, Stonier keeps abreast of what the data laws are in every area of the world, assisting MasterCard in developing policies with countries that have vastly different cultural notions about privacy and a government’s role in protecting it. 

The US is an “outlier” in addressing privacy issues since it does not have a comprehensive privacy law, she says, but other governments are beginning to shift their energies to develop a more comprehensive approach to protecting their citizens’ privacy: “Many countries want to be part of digital commerce.  They want that type of commerce for their economy and they wake up to the fact that data is big business and that there is an emerging need to protect the personal information of their citizens.”

As Stonier races to deal with the back end of privacy issues in the context of global commerce, she is convinced of the need to address those issues early on—at the design level. She teaches international business and business strategy in the Design Management Masters program at Pratt Institute, where she encourages her graduate students to be ever mindful of the user’s privacy as they develop digital products and services.

“Design is the ability to take things that are not well known or defined and define them,” she says.  “The problem is that nobody knows how to best define privacy.”

Thinking about how to treat data is central to the new information society, Stonier says. “Privacy is part of the sustainability of all that.” But she cautions: “We’re running out of time.  What we decide today will create the future.”

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