Chief Privacy Officer & Vice President | Walmart Stores, Inc.
HARVARD UNIVERSITY | YALE UNIVERSITY
By Daniel P. Smith // Photography by Jacob Slaton
When Jonathan Avila began his legal career at CBS in 1992, the Harvard Law School graduate was thrown into the world of privacy and security.
With the popularization and increased commercial availability of miniaturized video recording equipment, hidden camera shows exploded in popularity across networks and emboldened news teams to capture behind-the-scenes footage previously shielded from public view, with an emphasis on the conduct of disreputable businesses.
With each new recording, litigation mounted. Plaintiffs battled to conceal the videos, citing trespassing or fraud, while media outlets countered with explanations of why the hidden recordings were necessary.
It was Avila’s first major exposure to the world of privacy law, a topic only glossed over during his law school studies in the early 1980s. The debates fascinated him, and they starred a curious cast of characters, featured convoluted business practices, and drew Fifth Amendment invocations. “There was real drama to these cases,” Avila recalls. “There weren’t clear answers because technology had outpaced the law.” Avila was hooked, and he immersed himself in a legal field churning with new developments. The privacy sector in law has grown only more complex in the era of the Internet, big data, smartphones, and social media.
Avila is now a leading corporate privacy expert with a career spanning CBS, start-ups, the Walt Disney Company, and Walmart. He is one of several authors credited with Privacy Compliance and Litigation in California, a practitioner’s guide to data privacy, and he is a noteworthy speaker on the topics of data privacy and First Amendment rights. He is the former president of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, the world’s preeminent organization devoted to privacy issues in the information economy.
His rise as a privacy expert is fueled by a devout interest in a legal area littered with more questions than answers. When Avila left CBS in 1999, he reached a professional crossroads. Offered a lucrative position with a large Los Angeles-based movie studio, Avila instead chose to join
mValue.com, a venture capital-backed Internet company where he could continue exploring privacy law. Though a risky decision, Avila embraced the exciting and novel opportunities mValue presented, particularly in the earliest stages of mainstream Internet adoption. “mValue launched me into an area of the law and compliance that’s enjoyed a tremendous amount of growth and in which I’ve been able to take on a leadership position,” he says.
Avila left mValue and joined The Walt Disney Company one year later. After eleven years there, Walmart Stores hired him as its chief privacy officer. He was eager to continue pursuing the intersection of technology and law.
Avila manages the company’s compliance with privacy laws, as well as its records, and works to bridge the gap between the online and in-store retail experience, particularly as it relates to customers’ personal data. He wants to find a balance between the company’s need for data and respect for its customers’ privacy.
“People want to make sure their information is being used respectfully,” Avila says. “Data privacy is a key part of trust, especially in any business with an intense customer focus and where the relationship with customers is as valued as it is at Walmart.”
Avila’s team largely serves as consultants. They solve problems for the business and counsel anyone throughout the organization—from human resources to e-commerce—who uses individuals’ personal information.
While compliance is crucial for Avila, he’s committed to a culture of privacy. “I need to help people understand consumer expectations and why they are present,” he says.
In a global company like Walmart, Avila often finds himself bridging a gap in expectations of privacy: the divide between US and European Union standards. Derived from a different set of experience and concerns—specifically about the role of government—the European Union’s interpretation of privacy law differs greatly from that of the United States. “Anyone working in privacy finds themselves explaining this, and I’m no different,” Avila says.
As security concerns escalate, Avila remains an ardent advocate for privacy by design. He urges enterprises to make privacy a critical part of their products and services, a sentiment he has cultivated through decades of study and reflection.
“Privacy shouldn’t be retroactively added to the process for a company to cover its bases,” Avila says, “but rather thoughtfully included in any product or service development.”
“An internationally recognized corporate privacy expert, Jonathan is at the center of one of the most difficult and intellectually challenging legal fields. His thoughtful approach to privacy by design has catapulted him to the highest levels of corporate America.” —Regina Montoya