Microsoft’s Mundie: Data Collection Fuels Need for New Privacy Rules

Speaking at the EmTech 2013 event, the Microsoft executive says a new privacy model is needed to address the ways data is gathered.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Individuals, companies and governments are going to have to reconsider how they think about and deal with privacy as increasing amounts of personal data are collected and stored, according to speakers at the EmTech 2013 conference here.

Devices, Websites and sensors continue to collect more information on people, from what they’re buying, to how much electricity they’re using, to how their health is, to where they are. The trend will only continue as more intelligent systems—including wearable devices—collect data for business and government agencies to use.

“People are now being observed in increasingly intimate ways by all the technology in their lives,” Craig Mundie, a senior adviser to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, told an audience Oct. 10 at the EmTech event, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Too much data is being collected in too many ways.”

Not surprisingly, people are becoming more uncomfortable, not only with how much data is being collected, but also why it’s being collected and what those parties—businesses or government agencies—might be doing with the information, Mundie said. That is part of the reason the Microsoft executive is advocating creating a new way of thinking about privacy around how the data is being used rather than how it’s collected.

The current privacy concerns echo those aired when credit card companies started becoming part of everyday life, he said. The worry was that the banks would have a window into all the purchases a person made, and what the banks could do with that information. However, the banks—eager to ensure that they didn’t give governments a reason to come down on them—were careful in how they handled the data they collected. At the same times, users were willing to give up a little data to the credit card companies in exchange for the convenience of using credit cards.

However, there are some key differences now that make the issue of privacy a larger matter, Mundie said. Much more data is being collected in different ways—from sensors in the home to applications on mobile devices—and consumers have much less knowledge in what information is being gathered and how it’s being used.

When a smartphone user looks to download an app, they may be asked if it’s OK that the app collects their location information. However, there’s no clear explanation about where that data will be kept and for what it will be used.

Other speakers also talked about the amount of data that is being collected from people. Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab—which uses data to help develop plans for urban areas—said privacy is “another thing we have to be very careful about.” The smart cities approach calls for massive amounts of information collected from a range of sources—including homes and cars—to be used by government agencies to make cities run more efficiently and cost effectively.