Engineers and Lawyers in Privacy Protection: Can We All Just Get Along?
1. How lawyers make simple things complicated. A first-year law student takes Torts, the study of accident law. A major question in that course is whether the defendant showed “reasonable care.” If not, the defendant is likely to be found liable. Sometimes a defendant has violated a statute or a custom, such as a standard safety precaution. More often, the answer in a lawsuit is whether the jury thinks the defendant acted as a “reasonable person.” The outcome of the lawsuit is whether the defendant has to pay money or not. We all hope that truth triumphs, but the operational question hinges on who can prove what in court.
The legal style is illustrated by the famous Palsgraf case. A man climbs on a train pulling out of the station. The railroad conductor assists the man into the car. In the process, the man drops a package tucked under his arm. It turns out the package contains fireworks, which explode, knocking over some scales at the far end of the platform. The scales topple onto a woman, causing her injury.
From teaching the case, here is the outline of a good law student answer, which would take several pages. The answer would address at least four issues. For each issue, the student would follow IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) form, discussing the issue, the legal rule, the analysis, and the conclusion: (1) Was the man negligent when he climbed on the moving train? (2) When the railroad conductor helped the man up, was the conductor violating a safety statute, thus making his employer, the railroad, liable? (3) When the man dropped the fireworks, was it foreseeable that harm would result? (4) Was the dropping of the package the proximate cause of knocking over the scales? In sum, we seek to determine whether the railroad is liable. The law student would explain why it is a close case; indeed, the actual judges in the case split their decision 4-3.
Engineers design and build things. As such, they seek practical and precise answers. Instead of an IRAC form, engineers seek to apply scientific analytic principles to determine the properties or state of the “system.” The mechanisms of failure in the Palsgraf case would be analyzed in isolation: (1) The train was moving, therefore, the policy of only allowing boarding while the train is stopped was not properly enforced, thereby introducing significant safety risk into the system. (2) The scales were apparently not properly secured, thus a vibration or simple force would have dislodged the scales, introducing safety risk into the system. Is the railroad liable? An engineer would conclude the compliance violation and unsecured scales means that it would be liable. The engineering professor would congratulate the engineering student for the simple, yet elegant, conclusion based on analysis of isolated components in the system. In engineering, simplicity is the key to elegance.
The lawyer may agree in theory that simplicity is the key to elegance, but law students and lawyers have strong reasons to go into far more detail. The highest score in a law school exam usually spots the greatest number of issues; it analyzes the one or two key issues, but also creates a research plan for the lawyers litigating the case. For example, the railroad has a safety rule that says the conductor shouldn’t help a passenger board when the train is moving, but surely there are exceptions? In the actual case (or the law school exam), the lawyer would likely analyze what those exceptions might be, especially because finding an applicable exception will free the railroad from liability. The good exam answer may also compare the strange chain of events in Palsgraf to other leading cases, in order to assess whether the plaintiff can meet her burden for satisfying the difficult-to-define standard for showing proximate cause.
In short, lawyers are trained to take the relatively simple set of facts in Palsgraf and write a complex, issue-by-issue analysis of all the considerations that may be relevant to deciding the case. The complexity becomes even greater because the lawyer is not seeking to find the “correct” answer based on scientific principles; instead, the lawyer needs to prepare for the jury or judge, and find ways, if possible, to convince even skeptical decision-makers that the client’s position should win.
2. How engineers make simple things complicated. A typical compliance task is that our company has to comply with a new privacy rule. For lawyers, this basically means applying the Fair Information Privacy Principles (FIPPs), such as notice, choice, access, security, and accountability. The law is pretty simple.
The engineer response is: How do we specify these rules so that they can be implemented in code? Stage one: specify the basic privacy principles (FIPPs). Stage two: specify commitments expressed in the company privacy notice. Stage three: specify functional and nonfunctional requirements to support business processes, user interactions, data transforms and transfers, security and privacy requirements, as well as corresponding system tests.
As an example, some privacy laws have a data minimization requirement. Giving operational meaning to “data minimization,” however, is a challenging engineering task, requiring system-by-system and field-by-field knowledge of which data are or are not needed for the organization’s purposes. Stuart Shapiro notes that an implementation of data minimization in a system may have 50 requirements and 100 associated tests. Input to the system is permitted only for predetermined data elements. When the system queries an external database, they are permitted only to the approved data fields. There must be executable tests—apply to test data first and then confirm that data minimization is achieved under various scenarios.
For the lawyer, it is simple to say “data minimization.” For the engineer, those two words are the beginning of a very complex process.
3. Why it may be reasonable to use the term “reasonable” in privacy rules. Swire was involved in the drafting of the HIPAA medical privacy rule in 1999–2000. Antón, the engineer, has long chastised Swire for letting the word “reasonable” appear over 30 times in the regulation. Words such as “promptly” and “reasonable” are far too ambiguous for engineers to implement. For example, consider HIPAA §164.530(i)(3): “the covered entity must promptly document and implement the revised policy or procedure.” Engineers can’t test for “promptly.” They can, however, test for 24 hours, 1 second, or 5 milliseconds. As for reasonable, the rule requires “reasonable and appropriate security measures”; “reasonable and appropriate polices and procedures” for documentation; “reasonable efforts to limit” collection and use “to the minimum necessary”; a “reasonable belief” before releasing records relating to domestic violence; and “reasonable steps to cure the breach” by a business associate.
The engineer’s critique is: How do you code for “promptly” and “reasonable”? The lawyer’s answer is that the HIPAA rule went more than a decade before being updated for the first time, so the rule has to apply to changing circumstances. The rule is supposed to be technology neutral, so drafting detailed technical specs is a bad idea even though that’s exactly what engineers are expected to do to develop HIPAA-compliant systems. There are many use cases and business models in a rule that covers almost 20% of the US economy. Over time, the Department of Health and Human Services can issue FAQs and guidance, as needed. If the rule is more specific, then the results will be wrong. In short, lawyers believe there is no better alternative in the privacy rule to saying “reasonable.”
The engineer remains frustrated by the term “reasonable,” yet accepts that the term is intentionally ambiguous because it is for the courts to decide what is deemed reasonable. If the rule is too ambiguous, however, it will be inconsistently applied and engineers risk legal sanctions on the organization for developing systems not deemed to be HIPAA compliant. In addition, “promptly” is an unintentional ambiguity that was preventable in the crafting of the law. By allowing engineers in the room with the lawyers as they decide the rules that will govern the systems the engineers must develop, we can avoid a lot of headaches down the road.
4. How to achieve happiness when both lawyers and engineers are in the same room. Organizations today need to have both lawyers and engineers involved in privacy compliance efforts. An increasing number of laws, regulations, and cases, often coming from numerous states and countries, place requirements on companies. Lawyers are needed to interpret these requirements. Engineers are needed to build the systems.
Despite their differences, lawyers and engineers share important similarities. They both are very analytic. They both can drill down and get enormously detailed in order to get the product just right. And, each is glad when the other gets to do those details. Most engineers would hate to write a 50-page brief. Most lawyers can’t even imagine specifying 50 engineering requirements and running 100 associated tests.
The output of engineering and legal work turns out to be different. Engineers build things. They build systems that work. They seek the right answer. Their results are testable. Most of all, it “works” if it runs according to spec. By contrast, lawyers build arguments. They use a lot of words; “brief” is a one-word oxymoron. Lawyers are trained in the adversary system, where other lawyers are trying to defeat them in court or get a different legislative or regulatory outcome. For lawyers, it “works” if our lawyers beat their lawyers.
Given these differences, companies and agencies typically need a team. To comply, you need lawyers and engineers, and it helps to become aware of how to create answers that count for both the lawyers and the engineers. To strike an optimistic note, in privacy compliance the legal and engineering systems come together. Your own work improves if you become bilingual, if you can understand what counts as an answer for the different professions.
We look forward to trying to find an answer about how to achieve happiness when both lawyers and engineers are in the room. Antón presumably is seeking a testable result. Swire presumably will settle for simply persuading those involved. However, we both agree that the best results come from collaboration because of the value, knowledge, and expertise that both stakeholder groups bring to the table.
Note from the Editor:
This essay will appear in January in “The Privacy Engineer’s Manifesto: Getting from Policy to Code to QA to Value.” The book will be available here. The book authors are Michelle Dennedy, Jonathan Fox, and Tom Finneran.
About the Author
Peter Swire, CIPP/US, is the Nancy J. & Lawrence P. Huang Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the Scheller College of Business. He is a Senior Fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum and the Center for American Progress, and Policy Fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology.
In 2013, Swire served as a member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. Previously, he was co-chair of the Do Not Track standards process of the World Wide Web Consortium. He served in the White House under both Presidents Clinton and Obama, and is lead author of two texts for Certified Information Privacy Professionals examinations of the IAPP.
Annie Antón is professor and chair of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. Previously she served as a professor in the Computer Science Department of the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University, where she was Director of the CSC Policy and Compliance Initiative and a member of the NCSU Cyber Defense Lab. In 2010 she chaired the NC State University Reappointment, Promotion and Tenure Committee. In 2008, she chaired the NC State Public Policy Task Force.