Parkin Space: Protect Their Privacy

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Godfrey ParkinDo you think data security is an issue for IT? Godfrey Parkin invites you to think again.

The recent admission that 40 million customers of all the major credit card companies have had their data hacked is the latest in a mounting wave of failures to secure customer privacy. In the past few months alone, the confidential information of tens of millions of people has been “let go” by household-name companies in banking, finance, insurance, education, and retailing. The criminals get the bad press. But these are corporate outrages, because in all cases they could have been avoided had the companies to whom customers entrust their data not been so inept, or worse indifferent, about their responsibilities. And they continue to get away with it because their customers themselves are ignorant or indifferent. Or, in the case of credit and debit cards, customers have no choice – if all card companies are equally bad, and all continue to have the same data intermediaries in common, you either accept the risks or try to live plastic-free.

What does this have to do with training?

First, those who are providing training in any subject, either in-house or as a vendor, online or in class, need to review their own procedures and policies for securing the personal data of their learners.

Some years ago I spoke on the topic of managing privacy in e-learning at a large learning conference. Only three people showed up. Two of them were expecting a session on how to keep distractions away from employees trying to e-learn in a busy office environment. I’m not sure that the awareness or concern of trainers has been raised much since then, but it needs to be. Whether they are paying customers or not, with the help of learning management systems we are gathering more and more intimate details about each learner. Those details need to be secured, not just from outside hackers but from any internal management and training staff who do not explicitly have a right to access. And learners need to know that they are secure.

You have a significant moral and motivational obligation to guard the privacy of your learners. Once you post your privacy statement, you are legally bound to adhere to it. When learners think that potentially every keystroke, decision, response, and test result can be tracked, they get nervous. When they think that their managers have access to those details, they worry. And if they think that their data may become publicly available, they may rebel.

There are many simple things you can do to make learners more comfortable. Among them: Post prominently a well-formulated privacy policy. For each course, restate this policy and provide any specific elaborations or differences for that course. Have each learner accept that policy as part of course registration. Tell them what information is collected and what it is used for. Tell them who can access it and under what circumstances. Tell them how it is secured both in databases and in transit. If you change your privacy policy, let every current and past learner know about the change and its implications. In online courses, let learners pick their own user ID and password, rather than automatically allocating them their name or e-mail address. Unless it contravenes a learning objective, give them an option in chat rooms or threaded discussions to use anonymity. If you use cookies, use one-time self-terminating session cookies so you are not placing track-able cookies on their PC. Overtly make use of encryption where learners have to provide any personal information. Destroy learner data as soon as it is no longer needed. Archive needed learner data offline or securely behind firewalls. Lock up your back-up tapes. And let learners view their own learner record at any time, so they can see what data is actually available to authorized parties.

The second aspect to privacy is this: there is an urgent need for training in security and privacy for all personnel in any business that accepts and uses customer information. That’s just about every business. (In my view, such training should be government mandated, but then I’m a vendor). Most security breaches are not the result of hi-tech brilliance on the part of the thieves, but of human weakness on the part of company employees. All employees need to understand the risks and learn the operating habits that mitigate them. They need to appreciate that technology is not in itself an adequate protection, and must be trained to develop the “street smarts” that will help them avoid the common behaviour pitfalls so often exploited by villains. Managers need to get their heads around the policies and procedures that will protect their customers, and must regard these with as much earnestness as those that protect their company.

Privacy and data security are not an IT-only responsibility, nor are they issues that you can deal with after the fact. Training has an important role to play. Get it right at the planning stage and you will be fine. Get it wrong, and you could be in big trouble.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.

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