IBM’s Cristina Cabella: ‘The world is built and fuelled by data’

23 Jun 2017

The chief privacy officer of IBM, Cristina Cabella. Image: Luke Maxwell

This week in our 5-minute CIO series, IBM’s Cristina Cabella outlines the importance of GDPR to Europe’s digital society and its economy.

Cristina Cabella has recently been appointed IBM’s chief privacy officer, with worldwide responsibility for information policy and practices affecting the company’s employees and thousands of clients.

In this role, she leads a global team of legal, data protection and technical professionals who address privacy and data security across IBM’s business. She also leads IBM’s global engagement in public policy, and industry initiatives on data security and privacy.

Future Human

Cabella has held a number of senior legal positions in IBM, including European data privacy officer; senior counsel for competition and EU matters; and trust and compliance officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

For several years, she was the general counsel for IBM Italy, chairperson of the company’s ethical committee, secretary of the board of directors, and also of the IBM Foundation. She was also the executive sponsor for gender diversity in IBM Italy, and contributed actively in developing initiatives to support the awareness and leadership of women.

Cabella was in Dublin last week to attend the Irish Government-backed international Data Summit.

Is it serendipity that, as GDPR comes into place, the chief privacy officer of IBM happens to be a European?

Well, I think it is a strong message from the company. I really feel that to be a European – I am Italian but always define myself as a European – and having responsibility globally, I believe, is a message from IBM recognising the importance of leveraging and balancing the IBM capability in Europe.

Europe is a geography where we have been for more than 100 years, and we have a sizeable operation both in terms of people and investment. We have various headquarters in Europe. For example, Watson IoT just opened in Munich a few months ago. It is important as a message and by design, not just coincidence, and I really feel proud having the responsibility to lead the company through this very challenging journey with my background. My understanding of the European issues is very deep.

In terms of GDPR, do you feel businesses are ready for it?

Well, let’s make a distinction between IBM and the external world. In IBM for sure, we have a history with privacy. We were one of the very first to start with this journey decades ago. There is an understanding and a culture around the protection of data, and the effort we are making now is to announce that culture, turning it from purely a compliance aspect, which it remains; but also, it is a great opportunity of making ourselves the trusted provider for customers.

In the market, I see GDPR as a great opportunity to make this culture shift and make privacy more understandable and more leveraged as an opportunity to improve the way we protect data, rather than be perceived as a very niche area that is only for technical experts.

So I think it is a great opportunity in that sense.

In what sense do you see GDPR as an opportunity for companies to establish best practice?

I wouldn’t deny that there is complexity around the implementation of GDPR, but I truly believe it is an opportunity because the world is built and fuelled by data. So, we must find ways to have an enhanced level of accountability and responsibility for the processing of the data.

GDPR is creating a harmonised level of common ground for tech companies but also for customers. Without it, I do not think we would achieve that in an expedited way – it creates a common ground for the next digital evolution of the world.

When it comes to Europe’s relations with the US and other trading blocs, how do you think we are fixed when it comes to respect for people’s data across borders?

There is a tendency to believe there is a contrast between the US and Europe, and this historically has been due to the fact that there were indeed different systems.

But there is an effort and I believe very much in the effort and activities being currently done to preserve the communication and cooperation. We cannot exist or survive this transformation, this digital evolution, without having the flow of data between Europe and the US.

So, we need stakeholders, political parties, and we really need to make sure that this dialogue continues, and that the mechanisms we have in place continue to be reliable for both parties, Europe and the US.

We need to create a bridge between the two worlds for the good of society and for the geographical flow of data.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years