Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.


Privacy is one of those oft misused terms that people throw around, particularly related to discussions of the SOPA or PROTECT-IP acts in the US. This is an ethical question and, unfortunately, arguments on either side usually degenerate into straw man arguments about “big brother” versus “pirates, criminals or terrorists”.

Taking a step back, privacy can mean one of three things in the context of information technology. First, privacy can mean anonymity, where people can contribute to discussions or other activities without having those comments attributable to them directly. Outside large organizations, this is usually accomplished by adopting a new identity such as a forum user or an online game character. Inside organizations, anonymity is rare. Authority and accountability require real names to be used and identity can be centrally managed even if single sign on or federated authentication are still rare.

Many arguments over anonymity descend into questions of what information can individually identify people, called Personally Identifiable Information (PII)? For example, is the IP address you use to access the Internet PII? If you are the only person accessing the Internet from that IP address and you use it for a long time, it may be. However, if you are behind a NAT, firewall or similar measure this may not be the case.

The problem is these discussions often consider potential PII in isolation. For example, my company regularly performs employee surveys. As the only Australian employee in my business group, if I select my country or office, I immediately lose anonymity. Few will argue that someone’s country is PII but it is more complicated in this case. Add that to easy inference and access to analytics and the situation becomes even more complicated.

Second, privacy can mean confidentiality, where people want to restrict access to information. This is usually enforced by access control (e.g. file permissions) or encryption (controlling who has access through protecting and distributing keys). A common example is a person’s medical records being available to medical professionals treating them but not to others. These records may be available to a wider audience of medical professionals for research or statistics as long as PII is removed.

However, confidentiality alone is not sufficient for privacy. Continuing the medical example, just because you want your doctor to see your medical records does not mean you want him or her to send them to a local newspaper to print potentially embarrassing stories about you. The doctor is permitted to use the records for treating you only. In other words, privacy can mean restricting information use, usually defined via laws or consent from the subject (the person the information describes or identifies).

Privacy in all three forms is clearly important for software dealing with external customers, particularly in areas with heavy legislation such as the medical or financial industries. Information on these could fill novels, is usually jurisdiction specific and is better covered elsewhere.

Some would argue enterprise software targeted at employees is less concerned with privacy. Most organizations’ policies state that employees using organization provided computers or systems submit to scanning for malware, logging of actions, indexing and retention for later retrieval and so on and complying to these policies is usually a condition of employment. Some countries’ governments also require access to otherwise confidential information, such as the recent issues with Blackberry devices being too secure.

However, this is not the case everywhere. Many countries, Europe in particular, have strong privacy laws. These benefit the subject by restricting the collected information’s use to that consented at the time of collection. However, well-meaning privacy legislation can impact IT in unintended ways. For example, if an application logs the path to a file “c:\users\joe\my documents\doc.txt” (Windows) or “/home/joe/Documents/doc.txt” (Mac, *nix) for usage statistics or supportability, has it inadvertently captured the user’s name (clearly PII) in the path and should the application remove or obfuscate that directory in the path?

Many countries also limit the movement of PII across country borders. Consent can permit it but the consent must be specific and prior. This creates challenges when aggregating data across and enterprise, systems with ad hoc reporting systems or those that share data. This is particularly challenging with cloud based systems where the location of data is unclear or data is replicated across multiple locations for redundancy.

The target market of software architect’s products influence or dictate its privacy needs.Indeed, as the individual responsible for non-functional requirements, software architects should understand which form(s) of privacy apply and for whom. They need not be experts – legal departments are for that – but knowing what to work around and work with are important, particularly for bigger sales. Indeed, if SOPA/PROTECT-IP is passed, software architects may have even more to learn and apply.

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