Washington State Begins Beta Testing Its Pioneering Privacy Modeling App

Seattle — and by extension, Washington — has a purist attitude in its fusion of technology and life. All other states offer their employees manuals, a help line, and if well-funded, a legal department to answer questions about privacy. If employees are lucky enough to have access to legal advice, they may be able to submit a question, receive a response and finally execute on the advice within a few business days. That’s sad.

The Washington State Office of Privacy and Data Protection is leaving those other states eating Mt. Rainier dust. Through collaboration with policy makers, attorneys and tech gurus, Alex Alben, the Chief Privacy Officer in the state’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, has realized his stated goals of examining privacy policies across state agencies and strengthening protections for personal data. The newly launched Privacy Modeling application (PM App), an initiative of the Office of Privacy and Data Protection, provides links to relevant federal and state law regulating security of data collected from individuals. Users immediately receive answers regarding what must, may or never ever can be done with different types of personal data.

The PM App does not just spit out a canned response to inform the user that social security numbers should be protected. Instead, the PM App offers truly helpful analysis of relevant statutes for people who are on the frontline of protecting citizen data being processed by the government. For example, a clerk working in the licensing department may want to know whether the agency can sell information that identifies recently licensed, male aestheticians within a certain age range, who are veterans, who have worked for at least three employers, and who have received disability benefits. By running a query, the user will learn that data such as first and last names, employment addresses, gender and age can probably be sold, but data related to veteran status and disability status must be shielded from disclosure.

How the PM App Works

Users select the data points to be analyzed:

  • The sector served by the agency, such as banking, health and medical, or education;
  • Types of data that the agency handles to fulfill its mission, such as veteran records, audio recordings, and driver or professional license numbers; and
  • Whether the agency plans to sell or market the data, share it with third parties or use it to grant social benefits.

The PM App analyzes the selections and produces a Results Matrix that uses color-coding to identify statutes that apply to the data and whether the proposed use of each type of data is “No Specific Privacy Law Found,” “Allowed With Limitations” or “Forbidden,” with links to the texts of relevant laws. Users also receive information about the laws and policies excluded from the PM App analysis, the statutes that should be reviewed by an attorney and a reminder that data must be collected in a lawful manner.

The PM App is a giant leap forward for the owners of the data, the agencies and their employees.

Why the PM App Is Important and Revolutionary

Government agencies that process data have bad reputations for being invasive and self-interested to the detriment of the individual. It’s no accident that the DMV is the portal to hell in a television and comic book series. Results of a search for “big brother” include words like, “scary,” “creepy” and “overbearing.”[1] Government has been characterized as stripping away the humanity of its subjects[2] or mining them for data. The PM App is a rehab of sorts — it embodies the self-regulatory spirit adopted by many industry sectors in the U.S.

The PM App also signifies the state’s interest in protecting the data entrusted to it. Let’s be clear: people generally have no option to withhold their personal information if they want to benefit from government services. The privilege of conducting business in some industries requires the provision of fingerprints, background checks and photographs. Information about our professional licenses are regularly marketed.

Initiatives like the PM App reduce cynicism about having to turn over personal data in order to pursue a dream of becoming a pyrotechnic operator. Development of the PM App signifies the state is invested in protecting our data. If George Orwell is accurate, and I am no more than a collection of my data, I welcome this added layer of protection.

The PM App also has significance for the users. Subject to the express and implied limitations in the User Guide, the PM App immediately provides links to federal and state statutes, and an analysis of whether the proposed use of the data complies with those statutes, enabling users to gain significant familiarity with the statutes that would ordinarily be accessible only through legal counsel. Users who desire to delve deeper into the laws may review definitions, exemptions and penalties to contextualize the laws to their agencies and privacy policies. Feedback from the testing is anticipated to reveal additional intangible benefits to performance accuracy and morale.

You Too, Can Have an Attorney in a Box

One of the most basic tasks that attorneys do is identify and analyze laws that are relevant to their clients. The PM App empowers employees who handle personal data by granting them access to laws that directly affect if, how and when data can be handled throughout its life cycle. In accordance with the requirements of the funding source, the PM App will be available through open access. The PM App Guide shows developers how they may tailor the PM App to their own uses. Caution: The PM Guide is great, but attorney advice is still very necessary when making tough calls about privacy issues.

Click here to access the PM App beta test. You can provide feedback or ask questions via an embedded link on the site. You can also gain additional information about the process of developing the PM App here.

Keep your eyes on the PM App, the Office of the Chief Information Officer, and trends in privacy. A conference focusing on data protection in the evolving digital environment is scheduled for early 2017 in Washington. Keep an eye on everything.

It’s when you look away that you are apt to get hurt.