Privacy Debt: The Hidden Scalability Killer

In the software development space, there is a concept used to describe outstanding bugs and fixes that have not yet been applied to software, known as “technical debt”. Technical debt accumulates when there are small fixes to be made, but other larger, high-priority fixes or changes take priority. It can also refer to developing a feature “quick and dirty”, knowing that you will have to redevelop this feature later, which will accumulate this debt.

Having to reinvest in an existing product is not only a cost issue, but it also affects business scalability. Technical debt is an overhead that hovers above, waiting to appear at an inopportune time, often when you need to deliver functionality that depends on a previously deployed “quick fix”. This ends up requiring a lot more effort than expected due to the need to redevelop the previous patch as well as the new feature, potentially compromising an agreement or release and adding frustration to all teams involved.

A similar type of debt exists in the privacy space, and I would argue that it is less visible than debt in code. Code issues are usually tracked in an issue tracker, or at the very least there are (hopefully) comments added to the source code somewhere. Confidentiality debt is far more sinister, as you often don’t have visibility of it until it’s too late.

How does confidentiality debt accumulate?

Unlike the code, where debt accumulates due to a conscious decision and the awareness that it must be settled “at some time”, confidentiality debt can be accumulated due to ignorance. In many cases, debt first becomes visible when a potential customer submits a mandatory security assessment document as a precondition to completing a transaction.

Security assessments have, in the past, focused on just that: security. These days we see privacy added to these assessments or provided as separate assessments, particularly with a focus on GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe and the UK, the California Consumer Privacy Act and Bill 64 in Quebec. Suddenly, privacy policies and procedures have come to the fore instead of just products and features, as customers are forced to verify that your practices match your policy.

Since confidentiality debt is regularly underestimated, it can subtly accumulate. Companies mistakenly assume that privacy is just policy, when in fact, it’s about every facet of business and signals a new way of operating for many organizations. Even in organizations that are more conscious of their obligations, debt may increase on purpose, as confidentiality is viewed as grudge buying, implementing loads of paperwork, policies, and procedures for very little financial or business reward. . This is an insurance policy “just in case” things go wrong, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Privacy programs are about building a business in an ethical and scalable way, from top to bottom.

When Debt Affects Bottom Line

The longer you leave your current procedures in place, the more integrated they become. If your policies don’t take into account your regulatory privacy obligations, your teams won’t embed privacy principles into their day-to-day operations. This results in teams that incorporate insufficient (or even bad) procedures that are increasingly difficult to shake off. When you expand into a new market, work with a larger client, or enter a regulated industry, the turnaround becomes all the more difficult and slow.

In fact, the larger your organization becomes, the more confidentiality is needed. The more complex your product becomes, the greater your responsibility in terms of privacy impact assessments. The more information you collect, the harder it is to track and respond to individuals’ legal (and often constitutional) rights. Simply put, managing privacy reactively today puts you in a difficult position to grow tomorrow.

These situations can be like receiving a final demand letter for a credit card you didn’t know existed. When it comes to security, many fixes can be put in place quickly for requested assessments and often rely on existing policies and procedures within the company. Privacy, however, is a surprise and privacy programs are not implemented in days; they take months or even years.

Get rid of debt

Privacy debt most often takes the form of missing policies, insufficient procedures, a lack of awareness in the organization, and ultimately, a lack of visibility into the personal information a company handles. Tackling any of these (even individually) takes considerable effort, but if dealt with at a steady pace and addressed early, it is far from insurmountable or unaffordable.

A key approach to effectively dealing with privacy debt is to stop it from accumulating in the first place and start paying off the debt you already have. Privacy is not a destination; It’s a continuous process of investing and withdrawing, but once you get your payouts under control, it becomes manageable and can even be a competitive advantage.

To get to this point, you need to bring confidentiality to the discussion table and set up your payment plan. Privacy starts with awareness, and dealing with debt starts with factoring your privacy requirements into a defined roadmap that makes sense for your business. Confidentiality is not a one-time responsibility; the entire management team should be aware of their role in investing in confidentiality.

Being able to respond to feedback transparently and quickly reduces sales cycle turnaround times. Integrating privacy principles into the software development process reduces the cost of redeveloping non-compliant features. Inventorying your data allows you to respond to data requests and avoid fines. Having a comprehensive and mature program in place allows you to grow at scale without compromising the integrity of your customers’ privacy. Invest in your privacy and eliminate your debt, and scalability (from a privacy and security perspective) starts to manage itself.

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