The state’s chief privacy officer and his team have developed an online product — a primer on privacy laws — to help government agencies and private businesses.

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What: Privacy Modeling, a new website built by Washington state government to offer government agencies and businesses an easy-to-use primer on privacy laws.


Who: Alex Alben, the state’s chief privacy officer since 2015 and a veteran of the Seattle technology industry, including executive positions at Starwave and RealNetworks.


Digital data trove: The amount of personal data collected and stored by governments and companies is growing, but “there are very few tools out there to help people design products that are respecting privacy laws,” Alben says.


No road map: There are two ways of trying to find out where your work fits into privacy laws, Alben said. “You can either call a lawyer and pay a healthy price, or you can do a bunch of random web searches.”


A new product: With the aid of law students (and a grant from the Hewlett Foundation), Alben’s team combed through federal, state and local policy laws, creating a database of more than 4,000 tags indicating what type of data and usage each law applies to.


Data uses: The resulting web tool, called Privacy Modeling, asks what type of data users will be gathering, such as banking information, medical information, or details about a student. The next layer asks what specific data points — date of birth, family information, Social Security number — will be collected. A final step asks whether that data will just be stored, or is bound for sale, publication or other uses.


Privacy user guide: The Privacy Modeling website checks that information against its tags, and the result is a web page that flags which uses of data are permitted, which might present a problem, and which likely violate privacy laws. Users can click through to the text of each applicable law, and also access a user guide designed to encourage governments and businesses to design products with privacy in mind.


Road map: Alben expects the tool, which will be released in a beta version later this month, to be useful for both government agencies and businesses. He sees the point-and-click interface in particular as something the technology startup community might take to. “Developers don’t like to read manuals,” he said.

— Matt Day