Interview with Privacy Advocate – Dr Pieter van der Walt

As consumers, we need to make sure what our rights are and be able to exercise those freely...

Dr Pieter van der Walt

For our latest interview, we have virtually sat down with Dr Pieter van der Walt, who’s been in the information industry for the past 30 years. It is only obvious that he learned quite a few tricks during that period of time. Luckily for us, information privacy is one of his top interests so, obviously, we’ve sent him some questions. Here’s what he had to say…

Can you shortly introduce yourself?

I have been in the information industry for the past 30 years at a number of corporate companies with a passion for information governance and privacy. I have a doctorate and a master’s in information science and a master’s of science in the management of technology and innovation. My interest in information governance has allowed me to play a broad number of roles in integrated reporting, data governance, corporate governance, records management, but more specifically – information privacy. Currently, I am implementing an operational model for information privacy and data governance within a large financial services company in South Africa.

What do you see as the main challenges for our privacy today?

With privacy regulations and legislation becoming the focus of the day, the challenge to make sure that you are compliant creates a lot of angst and challenges for any organization, small to large. Different priorities are chased, given limited resources and ensuring that they add value. Moving beyond pure compliance towards a sustainable privacy landscape will be the challenge, but as we’ve seen from the COVID-19 pandemic – this also creates new requirements of compliance with a clear balance of continuing individual privacy rights against the requirements of society and the economy.

Then there are issues of ensuring privacy and ethics within an environment where machine learning capabilities are being stretched into the direction of deep learning and AI — these are all challenges that need to be fully understood. Approaches between regimes will be different, disclosure and sharing of information will be different between generations. Companies will see opportunities in the available data of its customers, some will exploit it to the benefit of their customers, some will abuse it. As consumers, we need to make sure what our rights are and be able to exercise those freely. However, your mileage may vary given the global challenges we face around privacy and how it is interpreted not only through legislative frameworks, but also culturally.

What can we as individuals do about it?

There are many tools to help one protect his/her privacy, but it is to ensure you are versed in your privacy rights. Understand the implications of privacy legislation within your country, know where your data is going, and ask questions. Be aware.

Unfortunately, we may avoid certain products — rather, the right approach would be to put pressure on these service providers for abusing personal information. But also do not be irresponsible – become privacy savvy. Educate yourself and use tools available to help manage your online presence and privacy.

Can VPNs help? Do you use one?

Using a VPN will help to obfuscate your online transactions. Yes, I use NordVPN and it does give you an extra sense of protection in public spaces and where you have to WFH or work away from the office, say in a library, at a friend’s place, or any untrusted network.

What do you do to protect your personal information?

Look at it holistically – don’t just think a VPN is going to help. You need to understand the entire landscape, which in itself is very complex. Educate yourself – don’t be stupid when you share your personal information. Ask yourself – why would the bank need to get my PIN number? Or why would I want to share my identification number with someone who says they are from this or that bank. Yes, tools can help, but make sure they are updated regularly and understand what they do. Do not just share because I need to have all my “friends” on Facebook or Instagram to contact me.

Do you have some other advice for our readers so they could, at least partially, regain their privacy?

Tools are great ways to give you some peace of mind, but that’s just a small part of the puzzle. Get educated, talk to your friends, parents, and show them how to secure their information. Give them practical advice.

Understand your privacy rights and why companies are asking for your personal information. Be skeptical when you are asked to share personal information. What’s the purpose?

Understand what your company’s policies are and work within those guidelines, ask the people in your organization that deals with these things daily for advice. They may even enroll you into some awareness campaigns – do them. Don’t roll your eyes when it comes to the online training assessments for privacy training. You will thank them for it!