Privacy and greater visibility: foes or friends?

Identity management is an important apparent paradox in today’s IT.

On the one hand, companies must do a better job of protecting the personal and corporate data they store. Customers and partners won’t do business with a firm that leaks sensitive information. And, increasingly, the government demands it, too.

Yet the privacy/security movement seems to run counter to another equally broad current in contemporary IT: the push to make information more visible across the entire enterprise.

Examples of this latter trend include products from companies such as Brio, Cognos, Informatica, SAS Institute, as well as more broadly focused firms such as IBM, Computer Associates, Oracle, and PeopleSoft.

Each of these products attempts, among other things, to make information collected in one part of the enterprise more available to decision-makers in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. If the head of manufacturing can see exactly what’s selling right now, so the thinking goes, he or she can better choose which model to produce next. The marketing chief can then view the sales data and resulting production schedule and better plan future advertising. And so forth.

I believe this trend is one of the most important in the field today. Heretofore, IT has amassed great quantities of data but served it mainly to specific people in predetermined, often hard-coded, ways. These products promise to “virtualize” information (apologies for the neologism!) in the same way that other systems virtualize hardware. The information could then be made available to anyone with a legitimate need for it, not just to a handful of people at the very top. That potential for greater transparency seems to run counter to the need for greater security.

I say “seems” because the conflict is only skin-deep; in fact, the two are deeply related.

Managers make better decisions if they are privy to certain corporate secrets. But no company would put those secrets in the hands of its managers if it did not have a nearly foolproof system for verifying their identity on each data access, controlling which data they see, and logging what data they request and how they use it.

That’s where products such as Courion Identity Management Suite and Business Layers eProvision come in. They provide unified systems for managing resource access.

My guess is that both types of products — those related to security, and those related to transparency — will evolve greatly during the next few years. But I bet that evolution proceeds in tandem; these are not unrelated categories. If anything, each product needs the other to succeed in order to achieve success itself.