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Ginger Armbruster and family on a snowshoeing trip. (Photo courtesy of Ginger Armbruster)

Open records laws that let people keep an eye on their government are generally seen as a net social good. But with privacy concerns top of mind — see Facebook — that access to data gets extra tricky.

Ginger Armbruster, city of Seattle’s chief privacy officer. (City of Seattle Photo)

“Our biggest challenge is that we have a really transparent public records act, which is great for keeping government transparent and accountable,” said Ginger Armbruster, the city of Seattle’s chief privacy officer.

But as a matter of delivering water and electricity, responding to public email inquiries, providing police and fire services, addressing homelessness and even issuing pet licenses, the city collects a lot of personal information about its residents. And there are limited exceptions as to which data can be withheld, such as information about children and social security numbers, when members of the public ask to see it.

So while the city’s Privacy Program tries to deflect the thousands of cyberattacks waged against it weekly, they’re also safeguarding residents’ information from legal inquiries.

“We have to anticipate who is going to ask for the data later,” Armbruster said. That means striking a balance between “providing services and protecting data,” she said.

Armbruster became the city’s privacy lead in July 2017. Her program works with other city departments to conduct privacy reviews, consider the effects of privacy laws and help employees ensure they’re protecting residents’ data in their day-to-day operations.

It’s a wide-ranging mission given the size and scope of Seattle’s city departments. “It’s like dealing with 30 different companies,” Armbruster said. “The diversity of issues that come across are just fascinating.”

Armbruster began working for the city in 2012, then left for almost two years in 2015 to go to Microsoft as a senior privacy manager for the Office marketing team. Prior to working for Seattle government, Armbruster was in sales and marketing for multiple tech-focused Fortune 100 companies including IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

She likes the impact that her work for the public sector has, and knows that her job affects friends and neighbors.

“It matters,” Armbruster said. “I’m a citizen and a resident of Seattle. It’s my town and it matters.”

We caught up with Armbruster for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: “City of Seattle IT offices, downtown Seattle.”

Computer types: “City standards: Tablet (Surface) and desktop (HP).”

Mobile devices: “City standards: two iPhones, one personal and one for work.”

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Apps: Kindle, OneBusAway, Munchery. Software: SharePoint and Office.”

Ginger Armbruster in her temporary workspace while her offices are moving. (City of Seattle Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “Currently, we are ‘in between’ office spaces. After more than 20 years, the city is conducting a much-needed refresh on the IT department floors. While we wait for real cubes and my office to be ready, my team is camping out in very small temporary workspaces, like a cluster of mini-cubes. While the privacy team doesn’t have much privacy at the moment, it has been a great experience to be a bit on top of each other as we form this new team and get to know one another. I do, however, look forward to soon being able to have a conversation behind a closed door.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “There is lots of good advice out there about managing one’s personal and professional lives and maintaining boundaries between the two. There are also all kinds of good practices for setting a strategic vision, getting through daily tasks, keeping on point during meetings and taming one’s email inbox. Everyone should explore and find their groove on those issues. I try to pay attention to the following:

  1. In all exchanges with people, remember to have respect for the individual (my first job out of college was with IBM and that motto stuck).
  2. A person’s true character will be revealed in how they treat people in conflict, so remember to act with kindness and patience.
  3. Most times, B+ work completed on time beats A+ work that is a month late (unless you are an engineer building a bridge or an airplane).
  4. Everything is temporary so try not losing your sense of humor.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “I’m in privacy and I really like having some! I jumped off social media several years ago and haven’t looked back. Younger family members and colleagues think I’m crazy, but the risk-benefit equation does not work for me, personally. Our personal data and inferences that may be gained from third-party monitoring of our behavior — likes, dislikes, friends and activities — is worth so much more than the social benefit of reconnecting to old acquaintances or the ease of sharing pictures with family.

The recent Facebook revelations are not surprising to me and really shouldn’t be that much of a shock to anyone who uses the site. The reason social media products are free and want all our information is that all that data is worth so much on the free market. Instead, I pick up the phone, send an email — and I even send cards and letters! Think of it as cultivating an air of mystery, being busy, hard to reach — living a life unattached to a device! Having said that, and getting off my soapbox, I do like LinkedIn to stay current with business colleagues and contacts.”

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “Let’s just say more than 20.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “25.”

How do you run meetings? “I prefer 30-minute meetings, or solving an issue over the phone or email. I will question a meeting request with no agenda or advance preparation and likely decline. If there is a topic that involves some kind of conflict, I will schedule in-person time. If it’s my meeting, I send out a topic and purpose with the invite. If I am an invitee, I ask for the agenda and what my purpose is for attending, so I can prepare and meet expectations. If it is a one-on-one with someone from my team, I turn the agenda over to that person because it is their time. If it is a standing meeting I have a regular meeting format and finally, if we get through the agenda and finish early, we all get time back.”

Everyday work uniform? “Professional to business casual.”

How do you make time for family? “Family is my priority. We have dinner together every night (no devices at the table), weekly movie and popcorn night (rotating who picks the flick), frequent family dinners with relatives in the area, monthly pedicures with my mom, weekly (or more) calls with my sister.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “At work, I like to take a few minutes to take a walk or chat with a colleague about current events. Out of work, I read (non-business books) for one to two hours per day, more if I can squeeze in the time.”

What are you listening to? “Lately, Spanish-style classical guitar.”

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “BBC news online, Seattle Times in the morning, Google News updates.”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “On my desk at work is ‘The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement’ by Andrew Ferguson. On my nightstand are Ron Chenow’s Alexander Hamilton biography (recently saw the musical) and Gavin Edwards’ ‘The Tao of Bill Murray.’ On my Kindle are Helen Simonson’s, ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ and Andrea Penrose’s ‘Murder on Black Swan Lane’ (British historical murder mysteries are a guilty pleasure and total mind candy).

Night owl or early riser? “As a parent, I am both a night owl and an early riser. Middle of the night when the house is quiet is the best reading time.”

Where do you get your best ideas? “In conversations with people I admire, both mentors and colleagues. I like to discuss challenges and try out ideas, and I always have to sleep on big problems to get a balanced perspective.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “I try to learn from watching everyone I work with, trying to take the best from everyone. At IBM I had a manager who was the best listener, respectful and encouraging to even the newest recruits. At Microsoft, I really admired Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela’s positive and inspiring approach to management — you wanted to be in the room with that guy and catch his enthusiasm. My current director, Jim Loter, is whip smart, able to quickly assess an issue and is always full of energy and humor. Anyone who inspires their team to be their best and enjoy their work is worth emulating.”

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