By Harry Keaney
Nuala O’Connor, with her ready smile and affable personality, seems an unlikely warrior. But as DoubleClick’s deputy general counsel for privacy, she is a frontline soldier in the campaign to assuage public concern over the sensitive issue of internet privacy.
Companies like DoubleClick, a huge multinational online advertising company, can gather much information about consumer activity on the internet by means of cookies, tiny files that are placed on computer users’ hard drives. Each cookie contains a tracking number but since the number identifies a computer, and not a specific user, it is considered anonymous. That anonymity ends, however, when a site or an advertiser matches a cookie with a name, which can happen, if for example, a user inputs personal information on a web site or enters a competition. From this can be created a record, or a clickstream, of the websites a computer user logs onto.
Once a consumer’s identity is known, a site or advertising network may be able to obtain a treasure trove of information about that consumer from an off-line data company, such as Abacus Direct, with which DoubleClick merged last year. It was that merger, and the implications for the privacy of consumers, that, in large part, led to the firestorm of controversy that engulfed DoubleClick, culminating in a Federal Trade Commission probe.
As DoubleClick grappled with the fallout, the company last February hired O’Connor, a 32-year old Belfast-born lawyer. Although armed with a law degree from Georgetown University, she feels her master of education degree from Harvard is just as useful in her job, which, she says, involves educating DoubleClick’s employees, clients and the public about what exactly the company does, and about its privacy policies and principles. “I think we have an obligation to explain our business,” she said. “We provide relevant advertising to online consumers.”
O’Connor readily acknowledges that the outburst of concern early this year about online privacy caught DoubleClick offguard.
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“We underestimated consumers’ concern,” O’Connor said. “We definitely believe there are some categories of information about which we shouldn’t be collecting information: medical, financial, sexual and children’s information.”
However, it seems that plans to merge DoubleClick’s technical prowess with Abacus’s wealth of consumer information is on the back burner, at least for now. Abacus was founded by Monaghan man Tony White.
“Abacus is still running very effectively as an individual company and all plans to link names and addresses with clickstream are on hold,” O’Connor said.
Meanwhile, the result of the FTC’s probe is still awaited. However, all O’Connor would say on that was, “We have co-operated very extensively and answered all of their questions.”
O’Connor’s work involves extensive traveling, speaking at conferences on the internet and to the industry’s representative organizations in Washington, D.C.
“I think we understand this issue very well and we are at a place where we can teach others about good business practices in this area,” she said.
Before coming to DoubleClick, O’Connor, worked with the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Washington, mainly on regulatory work in banking and the internet. And before becoming an alumna of Harvard and Georgetown, she had graduated from Princeton. “I have good parents,” she said.
Her mother, Roisfn Caldwell, was the eldest of 10 from from Andersonstown; her father, Raymond, the youngest of 7 from the Ardoyne.
O’Connor herself was baptized in St. Agnes Church, on the Falls Road. When she was 2, the family moved to the U.S.