If you ask Alex Alben whether he sees himself as working for the government or the people, he’ll tell you that, for him, there is no difference. As Washington state’s first chief privacy officer, it’s his job to serve as a resource, moving between the often-disparate worlds of state bureaucracy and the daily lives of Washingtonians. “I don’t really draw a distinction. I feel that I’m doing public service. Public service to me means making sure that the government is working most effectively on behalf of citizens.”
It’s obvious in even the briefest of conversations with him that Alben is invested in the work his team does protecting information with the Office of Privacy and Data Protection. Though his post was only created in April 2015, the CPO has already launched tools to guide agencies in protecting and using their data within the bounds of Washington state law.
The Privacy Modeling Tool is the perfect example of how Alben innovates around challenges. In the beta stages in early 2017, it provides a framework for agencies to design programs around privacy protections and state law — what Alben calls “privacy by design.” As government becomes more reliant than ever on customer data, Alben argues that the privacy and safety of data stores must be an evolving consideration. “In the background, more and more government services now rely on data collection and storage and processing,” he said. “In fact, I can’t think of a government product or service that doesn’t involve collecting data from citizens.”
For lawmakers, the privacy point man is also helping guide legislative decisions around data. Most recently, he advised lawmakers on the challenges and opportunities around biometric identification. While he said there are a number of benefits to the quickly improving technology, the data also carries hefty risks worth careful consideration.
“With the proliferation of new technologies, including cloud computing and big data analytics, we’re getting into a realm where the old models of government data management don’t apply anymore. It might be a cliché, but I really do think that we need to reinvent the data model for government, particularly in light of the evolving security and privacy environment.”