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This is the fourth year of the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, which will draw hundreds of people to Seattle’s Bell Harbor International Conference Center in a few weeks. But looking at the initial registrations, conference co-founder Natalie Fonseca was pleasantly surprised at the number of first-time attendees signing up.

Natalie Fonseca
Natalie Fonseca

“There are more people paying attention to these issues than there were previously,” Fonseca said. “There’s a different level of awareness — which is a good thing.”

You can bet that Edward Snowden won’t be flying in to attend, but the government surveillance practices revealed by the former NSA contractor are putting an even larger spotlight on the topic — engaging a much broader range of people in discussions that technology, privacy and security experts have been having mostly amongst themselves.

“It’s always been part of what of our conference is about, but obviously the timing of this has changed things,” Fonseca said.

The conference, known as pii2013, runs Sept. 16-18. It’s one of two upcoming conferences in the Seattle region focusing on privacy and technology, the other being the International Association of Privacy Professionals Privacy Academy from Sept. 30-Oct. 2. (Editor’s Note: GeekWire is a media partner of the pii2013 conference, and the IAPP conference is a GeekWire advertiser.)

The NSA revelations have raised the stakes of the conversation, said Jim Adler, the former Intelius chief privacy officer who is now vice president of products at Metanautix, a big data analytics startup. In the past, much of the discussion has centered on Facebook privacy issues, but that mostly involved data that people were sharing freely anyway.


Privacy Identity Innovation, Bell Harbor Int’l Conference Center, Sept. 16-18. Special discount on tickets available to GeekWire readers. Click to register.

Government surveillance takes the discussion to a whole different level. For all the influence wielded by Mark Zuckerberg & Co., governments have much more inherent power, including the ability to convict and incarcerate. Adler laid out the implications of these issues long before the NSA revelations in what he calls the Places-Players-Perils framework.

“Perilous things tend to happen when the power disparity between the players is larger,” Adler explained. Privacy, on the other hand, can serve to equalize that power disparity — assuming that people actually have knowledge of how their data is used.

“The most scary issue around this is the lack of transparency,” said Adler, who is among the speakers at the pii2013 conference. “As a democracy, we need to have some level of transparency so we can debate the appropriate level of privacy and security.”

For technology ventures, there are not just challenges but also opportunities in privacy, he said, noting that leaders of large companies sometimes aren’t even aware of the types of data they have about their customers.

“When there’s a problem, like compliance, they’re often viewed as being conspiratorial, but in many circumstances they’re just naive — they just don’t know the data they have,” he said. “That’s a huge opportunity for companies to deliver tools, especially in the area of compliance.”

Even with the larger spotlight, Fonseca said, the underlying principles of privacy haven’t changed.

“For us, the goal all along has been to try to make the point that privacy is really about building trust,” she said. “To me, when you redefine and think about building trust, that’s something that every business needs to care about. What we’ve been trying to do is broaden the conversation, and reframe it. It’s about the relationship you have with your clients and customers, and it’s about trust.”

[Note to ReadersSee the GeekWire Calendar for a comprehensive directory of Pacific Northwest tech conferences and geek events.]

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