The International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners is convening in Jerusalem.  Appropriately, given the ancient history of the host city, the conference theme is “Privacy: Generations.”  The debate on Day One has drawn on the founding principles of data protection, but also has heavily focused on the future challenges in safeguarding the fundamental rights of privacy and data protection in a world of ubiquitous computing and social networking.

The tone was set in the opening plenary when Dr. Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli Minister of Finance, reminded us of the key tensions in privacy policy.  While privacy may be a fundamental tenet of every democracy, individual cultures must make choices between the competing values of privacy and security, and privacy and transparency.  The balance between these values, and the priority given to one over the other, will shift over time and from one culture to another.  The conference provides a timely opportunity to reassess where that balance currently lies, and what balance may be appropriate in the near future.

In this context, Lawrence Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, U.S. Department of Commerce, highlighted current initiatives to enhance the privacy framework in the U.S., particularly in the arena of online commerce.  Historically, the FTC has taken the lead in privacy enforcement in the U.S., utilizing its jurisdiction to regulate practices in commerce that are unfair or deceptive.  Now, the Department of Commerce is seeking to develop comprehensive fair information principles specifically designed to address privacy protection on the Internet.  The Department of Commerce supports the establishment of an office of privacy expertise that would complement the FTC’s role in enforcing privacy.  A key role for this office would be to engage with industry and to encourage the development of substantive privacy codes with a view to encouraging consistent practices within industry, and to build on shared international commitments to data protection.  In this context, Mr. Strickling challenged conference participants to “lay the groundwork for global privacy interoperability.”

Conference host, Yoram Hacohen, the Head of the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority (“ILITA”), challenged delegates with a provocative video clip to consider whether privacy is still relevant to younger generations and, if so, whether technology can be used as a shield to safeguard privacy rights, rather than to threaten and undermine privacy.

Adding a European perspective, Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, reminded delegates that privacy is much more than an individual right.  In Europe, data protection and privacy rights have developed as distinct but related human rights, and are very much societal rights.  That said, it is indeed timely to consider whether there is a generational or societal shift in the perceived value of these rights.  If so, why is this the case?  Does a move in societal values somehow trump individual interests in privacy?  How should the privacy community respond to these changes?