Ethics, data protection build public trust, says researcher

It takes a long time for a business or government department to build public trust and only a short time for that reputation to erode, warns American researcher Larry Ponemon, founder of Michigan-based Ponemon Institute.

“There’s no magic formula for building confidence,” Ponemon told participants at a symposium held Tuesday on Citizen Trust sponsored by Unisys.

However, research by the Ponemon Institute has sifted out important characteristics and attributes of trusted organizations, including what causes them to fall out of favour.

Ethical behaviour is the most important trait for creating trust and is also the one that can turn sour the fastest for a company or government organization, he said. The other most important factors for creating and maintaining a trustworthy image are product quality, customer satisfaction and positive leadership.

An organization will fall into disrepute in the public’s eyes from poor products, unethical practices, undependable IT, customer dissatisfaction, invasion of privacy and disgruntled employees, he added.

The conclusions are based on data collected in the United States. The Ponemon Institute is conducting comparable research in Canada and hopes to make its data available in the near future. He expects the conclusions won’t be that different from his American findings.

Pat O’Kane, chief architect for the Unisys Enterprise Security Program, said governments have to learn to be better stewards of information about citizens especially since they have moved to electronic communications with members of the public. The recent theft of a computer holding confidential data on millions of Britons highlights the need for great care.

Public interest in the issue is growing because of a steady stream of news media reports about identify theft although most instances amount to identity fraud such as stolen credit cards, he said.

At the same time, governments need “to deal with the issue of how much security is enough. What do you want and really need,” he said.

Governments also need to know and be able to trace who is accessing their electronic data systems. More auditing of electronic communications from the public is also needed to counter fraud attempts by criminals, he suggested.

As well, technology exists to track where information goes when it is released by a government department.

Rachelle May, director general of major projects and systems at the Canadian Border Services Agency, said her department works with the federal privacy commissioner’s office to ensure that the personal data it has is adequately protected in communications with other departments and governments.

Chuck Shawcross, chief technology officer with Public Works and Government Services Canada, said government systems face “an increasing threat of criminal activity. We have to make sure our systems are viable and protected while giving access to the public.” Governments want to move to shared services IT delivery while countering security threats.

Unisys president Bob Binns said governments “don’t get enough credit for the job they do in protecting sensitive public data. They should tell their story more often.” Governments also help advance security protection because they are “early adopters of new technology,” he added.

Ponemon said the public has a higher expectation of governments than it does the private sector when it comes to protecting confidential data. The news media attention to identity theft issues will have an effect on public attitudes, he added.

Research by the Ponemon Institute has found in recent years that safety, security and dependable IT have gained a lot of importance with the public in terms of what constitutes a trustworthy organization.

Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. He can be reached at

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