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The Privacy Lawyer: CPO Watch: Richard Purcell

Richard Purcell, the first CPO of Microsoft, is a visionary, Parry Aftab says, understanding the need for privacy advisers in major companies long before others did.

When I decided to create the CPO Watch feature for InformationWeek, I wanted to share two insights--those offered by privacy professionals and those about the people who make up our privacy elite worldwide. When I thought about which privacy expert I would feature in my inaugural column, there was no question in my mind--Richard Purcell had to be first.

Everyone who knows Richard agrees that he's one of a kind. Richard is a visionary, understanding the need for privacy advisers in major companies long before others did. He ranks among the earliest of the chief privacy officers in major U.S. companies. He created the chief privacy officer position at Microsoft in the late '90s and held it until earlier this year, when he left Microsoft to establish a new privacy consulting and training company--the Corporate Privacy Group.

At first glance, Richard was an unlikely business executive with the world's largest technology company. Even by Pacific Northwest standards, he stands out. His long ponytail, "no hassle" attitude, and love of the outdoors seem to provide a better fit for his early career at a natural food store in Eugene, Ore., than that of the first chief privacy officer at Microsoft. But that's part of Richard's charm. And while his easy smile disarms most people, it doesn't hide his acute intelligence and strategic planning skills.

Long before Microsoft realized it needed a privacy adviser (what would be later called a CPO), Richard understood the importance of building privacy policy from the inside out. At that time, he learned that privacy, if considered at all, was just layered on, not built into, product and services development. His expertise with using and managing data had been developed over several years--first as a catalog marketing executive and later as a database marketing consultant. (Catalog marketing was one of the precursors to Internet data-mining and marketing practices.)

When I asked Richard to describe some of the most rewarding factors in his role as Microsoft's CPO, he said Microsoft encouraged "strategic thinking and innovation. Whether the challenge was driven by market forces or technology developments, there was a constant and consistent theme valuing strategic solutions over tactical." But, he cautioned, "the outcome isn't always consistent with the theme; strategic solutions are very hard to achieve at all times. But you have to keep trying, nonetheless."

Richard also explained a secret that CPOs from large companies understand, or need to. "When it comes to advising large technology companies on privacy practices and procedures, you have to be practical and think outside of the box. Independent thinking is crucial."

This was easier for Richard than for most. Independence is evident in everything he has done. He's been an organic grocer, a newspaper publisher, a mountain climber, and more. Now, for this next stage of his diverse career, he's intent on using his experience and varied skills to improve the way people deal with information in safe and useful ways. For him, it's about connecting the dots between people, policies, procedures, and technologies, a model he refers to as "3PT." (Richard's Microsoft background is never more evident than when he coined the 3PT acronym from People, Policies, Procedures, and Technologies.)

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