Designing Privacy with Dr. Ann Cavoukian

Sometimes it takes a few years (and a few careers) to figure out what you want to do with your life. Dr. Ann Cavoukian knew at an early age, and she’s now one of the world’s foremost experts in her field. After working for years as the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Cavoukian made the Privacy by Design framework in a reality in 2009.

Born in Cairo, Cavoukian’s family left Egypt for Canada when she was only four. As her parents worked constantly to make ends meet, she was raised by her grandmothers.

“It was such a hard life for them,” she says. “My grandmothers had tattooed on their forearms their prison numbers. They just barely escaped the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915. That’s when the love of privacy came into me. They would tell me, in prison, you were whispering and looking over your shoulder, because if you dare said anything that was considered to be pro-Armenian they would kill you right there on the spot. These nightmares they told me drove home how essential privacy is, it’s the foundation of our freedom.

Privacy by Design is an approach to systems engineering based on the principles that privacy should be the default, and respecting privacy is more important than using it as leverage. Handled properly, privacy can build trust between leaders and teams, customers and companies. Knowing what your information is being used for and what the boundaries are can be a positive win for a company’s brand and profitability.

One of Cavoukian’s  many daily tasks is dispelling the myths associated with privacy.

“It’s not about secrecy, it’s not about having something to hide,” she says. “It’s about control. Personal control on your behalf relating to the uses of your personal information. I always tell people that privacy is not a religion. If you want to give away your information, be my guest, as long as you make the decision to do that. Context is key, and only you know the context associated with certain data, as to its sensitivity, or lack thereof.”

Cavoukian is all about being proactive when it comes to privacy. Prevention is key. It’s also about getting rid of zero sum models and replacing them with positive sums.

“Zero sum means you can only have a positive gain in one area, security, always to the detriment of the other area, privacy, so that the two total to the sum of zero,” she explains. “That is so yesterday and such a dated view. I want businesses to gain by protecting their customer’s privacy. I present it as a win-win. You’re going to gain a competitive advantage by advancing your customer’s personal interest.

“It’s been embraced by so many companies. I’ve presented this to boards of directors, senior executives. They love it, because when I first go in to talk to them I get these flat faces, they’re not happy to see me because they think privacy stifles creativity and innovation. Privacy by Design does the exact opposite. It breeds creativity, innovation, prosperity. It works for your business and for your customers. You’ll build trust in business relationships, and we’re in such a trust deficit right now.”

Cavoukian has worked with big names all across the world, including Telus, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, and more. She’s even been asked to create a certification program for Privacy by Design. Whether you’re in charge of a large global team or it’s just you plugging away on a laptop at Starbucks, privacy is key (and you shouldn’t have to think about it).

“Most people still take their privacy for granted, and that’s how it should be,” Cavoukian says. “But we’re going in a direction of mass surveillance, so I’m going to preserve privacy. Not just for ourselves but for our children, future generations. They have to have privacy, they have to have freedom, it’s essential.”

Visit to register to see Dr. Ann Cavoukian speak in person at the 2020 Disrupted conference, January 30-31 at the RBC Convention Centre. Early bird prices are in effect until November 15, so act now!