Helenemarie Blake-Leger, UM's data privacy officer

An inside look at data privacy at the U

By Life@TheU

An inside look at data privacy at the U

By Life@TheU
Facebook, Amazon, Equifax, and others all have one thing in common. Yes, you guessed correctly—data breaches. Shut off that podcast, unplug your Alexa, and read about Helenemarie Blake-Leger, the University’s first-ever data privacy officer.

Is technology spying on us?
Yes and no. This is a question that a lot of people are worried about. Any app or technology that we use today most likely collects data for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes technology collects data in order to make it work better or fulfill its intended purpose—like a Fitbit or Apple Watch—while others collect data in order to be able to understand their users and turn that knowledge into intellectual or pecuniary profit. If data collection is done ethically and securely, it can bring incredible value to business, research and improvement of the human condition.

Tell us a little about what you do.
My job and that of my team is to ensure that we are using data ethically and to support and serve as a resource to all areas of our community. We engage in compliance functions in order to stay within regulatory guidelines, but we also help design ways to use data to improve our operations, services, and drive exciting research. In addition to my role as DPO, I oversee HIPAA at the University of Miami Health System.

Why did you get into this field/career path?
Like most of my colleagues in the privacy world, I was volunteered! As the practice group leader for the health group at my law firm, I was put in charge of the privacy initiative at the firm as we became business associates for clients like the University of Miami, and fell under HIPAA compliance mandates. I chose to transition from my career as a litigation attorney and devote myself to privacy. Now that I am working at the U, an institution on the cutting edge of developing technology, I could not be happier about my decision.

Why would an organization need a DPO?
It is the right thing to do at a time where the value of data is reaching immense proportions. In 1948 the United Nations declared privacy a fundamental human right. Since that time lawmakers worldwide have enacted protections to that right. Regulations in the United States such as HIPAA require that a privacy officer be in place and, most recently, the EU enacted the GDPR which requires a DPO in certain circumstances.

What does your average day look like?
There is no such thing as an average day. The University of Miami has such a rich diversity of activities which involve data that I am always getting involved in new projects. On any given day I field questions on how to handle data in different circumstances, draft contracts and proposals for research that involves data, review privacy issues in contracts with our partners, help patients manage their data, set policy and conduct compliance activities in areas where they are required. I have an outstanding team that strives every day to be the best resource possible to the University of Miami community relative to data and privacy issues.

What is the one piece of technology you can’t live without?
My iPad is my favorite piece of technology, especially now that I travel across all campuses. I hate to miss a beat and my iPad allows me to stay connected and to be able to work from whichever location I am in.

What are your thoughts around Alexa and other AI tools? Yay or nay?
The world of AI and machine learning is so exciting, we are just starting to scratch the surface of the potential that is there. I am a big supporter of AI tools as long as they are being put to use responsibly and ethically. That said, while the basic principles of data protection and ethics always apply, the “rules” as to how AI tools should be used from a data management and protection standpoint have not yet been fully defined as these technologies are so new to the market at large. Ultimately, my thoughts are that if you are comfortable with the platform and think that the manufacturer has taken necessary steps to protect your data, go ahead!

What’s the one piece of advice you can give about protecting your personal privacy?
Understand that that your data has tremendous value.  Be informed. Take some time to understand how your data powers your life in terms of the technology that you use. Always read the privacy statement on a technology you are contemplating using so that you can understand and be comfortable with how that technology is going to use your data. 

What book is on your nightstand?
I hate to sound like a total privacy nerd, but I am! I am currently studying for my second and third certifications with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. I have both texts on my nightstand and try to get through a couple of chapters a night.

What do you do in your free time?
Family is the center of my life. I am very blessed to have some wonderful people in my life, including my stepdaughter who just started high school. Travel is a passion for my husband and I, we are always planning our next trip!

Who inspires you?
My parents. The best lesson that my father passed down to me is that he always woke up in the morning excited about the adventure he was going to have that day. He taught me to look forward to an interesting person to meet, a new experience or something new to learn about. It always keeps me on the lookout and, at the U, I am rewarded with something interesting every day. My mother is the strongest person I know, she has taught me that compassion and kindness are the secret to fortitude.

Who would you most like to swap places with for a day?
A student at the U working on a new technology. I am constantly amazed at the ideas our students have and the things that they are doing; I feel privileged to be able to help them bring those concepts to fruition. I would love to trade places and be part of the invention and design process for a day.


Looking to learn more about protecting your data? Join Blake-Leger and experts from across the University for seminars and information fairs on all campuses during Compliance and Ethics Week at the U, Nov. 5–9.