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Google CFO Ruth Porat: When It Comes to Data Privacy, ‘We Need to Constantly Raise the Bar on Ourselves’

October 2, 2018, 5:10 AM UTC

Before Ruth Porat became the chief financial officer of both Google and its parent company Alphabet, she worked at Morgan Stanley. There, she—like many others in the financial industry—slogged through what became the 2008-2009 financial crisis, leading a team that advised the U.S. Department of Treasury on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the New York Federal Reserve Bank on AIG.

The experience left an impression on her, she said Monday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “One of the really important lessons for all industries that I took away from the work during the financial crisis—it applies to all industries in good times and bad—is: What are the unintended consequences of everything we’re doing, and how do we each stay ahead of those?” she said.

Porat, in conversation with Fortune’s Pattie Sellers before hundreds of top female executives, said those questions stuck with her as she joined one of the world’s largest and most valuable tech companies. Like peer media companies Facebook and Twitter, Google has come under fire recently for its data privacy policies and a business model based on the collection and dissemination of user data. (Google generates the lion’s share of its revenues from advertising dollars.)

It’s an unfair criticism, Porat seemed to suggest.

“Privacy’s been very important for Google since inception,” she said. The company was the first to say that users could take their personal data with them, for example. There are substantial privacy controls available to users. “‘Respect the user’ is a key mantra internally,” she added.

But that’s not enough. After the social media extremism on display over the last year, “The key lesson is, we need to constantly raise the bar on ourselves,” Porat said of Google and its peers. Some of the racism, sexism, and hate speech on display on today’s largest social networks can be difficult for the average person to discern; partnerships with, say, NGOs are needed to understand what a dog whistle is, for example.

“You need to identify your source of vulnerability and invest in it early,” Porat said. “For banking [during the ’08 financial crisis], it was liquidity.”

Or, put another way: Investing in the right foundation of data analytics systems allows you to “drive without mud on the windshield”—that is, faster and unencumbered, with a clear view.

Is there mud on the windshield at Google or Alphabet? Was there any when Porat joined the company in 2015? The CFO took a long pause after Sellers asked her the question, eventually finding the words. “You can always provide business leaders with greater data and clarity so they can make better business decisions,” she said. “They can stack-rank what’s most important to be focused on.” And think more carefully about tradeoffs, she added.

“I love data,” she said. “It gives you a fair picture.”

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