Recognizing Data Privacy Day by Protecting Your Privacy

What if we could ensure that personal data was protected, benefiting not just the individual but also giving developers faster, worry-free access to data?

Recognizing Data Privacy Day by Protecting Your Privacy

I was born in Communist Romania in the 1970s. The Securitate was the branch of the government charged with knowing everything that Romania’s citizens were doing. At its peak, roughly one in 44 people living in Romania either worked for the Securitate or were informers. This was a place where employers spied on workers, teachers spied on children, and children were asked to spy on their parents. To this day, my father prefers to have sensitive conversations sitting in his car, because that was the one place in Romania that you could be sure had no one listening to your conversation.

My family was fortunate enough to escape Romania, sneaking across the border and eventually arriving in an Austrian refugee camp, before immigrating to the United States as political refugees. The specter of a government that could listen to and observe every private act loomed large in our conversations growing up.

But it’s not only the government that listens. 

Today each of us leave “digital breadcrumbs” everywhere we go. Cookies and trackers are old news, as is the way retailers know -- and sometimes reveal -- more about us than our families: it was almost a decade ago when Target sent coupons for baby clothes to a pregnant high school student before she’d had a chance to tell her family.

More recently there’s been coverage of “data brokers”, companies that buy and sell vast databases of your personal information. Fast Company reported that, “[b]y buying or licensing data or scraping public records, third-party data companies can assemble thousands of attributes each for billions of people. [I]f you use a smartphone or a credit card, it’s not difficult for a company to determine if you’ve just gone through a break-up, if you’re pregnant or trying to lose weight, whether you’re an extrovert, what medicine you take, where you’ve been, and even how you swipe and tap on your smartphone.” Companies like Facebook are enormous purchasers of this data.

On Data Privacy Day, there’s another category of privacy that’s worth talking about, another place where our digital breadcrumbs are hoovered up and -- with the best of intentions -- leave us vulnerable and exposed.

Over the last two decades, the bottleneck within companies to do massive data analytics was access to computational power. It could take users days, if not weeks, to get access to enough “compute.” Now, fast access to data is no longer the bottleneck. Unicorn technology start-ups, as well as enormous corporations, have access to tremendous computational resources. What they often don’t have, are the privacy safeguards required to protect your data and mine. 

I’ve spent the last 15 years in Silicon Valley, including a decade on the management team at Google, and have heard stories time and again about companies where “every engineer has access to all of our code base” and “we innovate because our machine learning models and AI have access to enormous volumes of data.” What’s left out is how that data is labelled, anonymized, and made accessible.

Some good actors have elaborate privacy policies in place. For example, at one company, when a user stops using the product, not only is their data removed but all the company’s relevant algorithms are re-run without that data to ensure an engineer couldn’t “back into” that individual’s private information. 

More typical, at tech companies and Fortune 500 companies, is that raw user data is accessible to too many people, with too few controls and often little or inadequate anonymization.

The genesis of Gretel.ai goes back to the Securitate and those digital breadcrumbs. What if we could make customer data available to analysts, immediately, but in a way that made it impossible to identify any single person? What if we could ensure that personal information was protected, benefiting not just the individual but also giving developers faster, worry-free access to data?

This is what Gretel.ai does. And on Data Privacy Day, it’s thrilling to know that privacy and innovation don’t have to be opposite ends of the spectrum. If you want to try it out, walk through our use cases, Blogs and GitHub, or reach out to us at hi@gretel.ai.


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