Ann Cavoukian was trembling as she took the stage at an annual meeting of privacy commissioners held in Jerusalem in 2010. She was about to propose that her model for approaching privacy, called Privacy by Design, be adopted as an international standard. It wasn’t the crowd that made Cavoukian nervous; she just really wanted her proposal to pass. Privacy by Design is her life’s work, after all.
Cavoukian needn’t have worried. The International Assembly of Privacy Commissioners and Data Protection Authorities voted unanimously to carry her proposal, which has since been implemented in jurisdictions all over the world. While few outside the world of privacy regulation know her name, the former Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner is Canada’s most powerful broker in convincing corporations and government agencies to treat people’s private data with care.“She was more a force of nature than a regulator,” says Jules Polonetsky, of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “She’s used every policy tool, and then some, to advance the Privacy by Design agenda.” Cavoukian’s model encourages corporations, governments and other organizations to embed privacy alongside normal business practices. She counts GE, McAfee and Intel among her enthusiastic supporters.
Her devotion to the subject of privacy, which she says is essential in a free society, stems from her upbringing. She was born to Armenian parents in Cairo a few years before Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and implemented a series of reforms her parents viewed as greatly curtailing their freedoms as citizens. “They literally left in the dead of night,” says Cavoukian. That her family moved halfway around the world to ensure their freedoms “is an example of how important freedom is,” she says. “That messaging has always been in my head.”
Cavoukian’s strategy has been to work with companies and organizations to help them achieve their goals, while still ensuring they uphold strict privacy standards. “If you approach privacy in this way, you will always get a seat at the table,” Cavoukian says. “Otherwise you don’t get heard.”