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At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, most of us were grateful for living in an era where we can immediately connect with love ones. We appreciated all the technology platforms that enabled us to stay in touch. However, with contact tracing and other tracking of mobile data proving effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19, tensions are arising in many countries between the needs to fight the pandemic and respect consumer data.

Value Exchange


The trade-off of our privacy boils down to a value exchange: I’m happy to give my details depending on what I get in return. When stuck at home day after day, the benefits of giving our details were clear. Additionally, if it means society opens again and we're healthy, we will happily use the necessary apps. With the recent news that the UK has decided to abandon its own contact tracing software and instead use the Google-Apple one, questions immediately arose about transparency.


The cooperation between big tech and sovereign nations, even during times of crisis, is not unproblematic. The developers want to store the data collected on government servers, but this would violate the privacy standards required for services in the App Store. Issues of sovereignty and oversight are at play, as they have been over the past several years, with the EU seeking to curb the influence of US Big Tech on citizens’ lives.


Technology and Privacy: Nothing New


We’ve had 15 years to get comfortable and used to how our online data was used in consideration of our privacy – and it took a long time for that conversation to evolve. It was only in 2018 that GDPR (EU data privacy regulations) was put in place after years of consultation. Since then, additional technologies, including this contact tracing app, have exploded and we understand the benefits of these technologies a lot faster than we do their implications for privacy. This technology explosion is accelerating further as new tech, such as live streaming and foreign owned tech, comes into use. And there's a speed of convenience with this – technology evolves much faster than our understanding of its impacts on privacy.


In 2019, Mark Zuckerberg was called in front of the US Congress to answer questions about privacy, election interference, free speech, and fake news. Although Zuckerberg did have to answer some complicated questions, it became clear during these sessions that technology is developing too quickly for seasoned politicians and many of them did not understand the more technical side of these platforms.


This unfortunately raises questions on whether governments are set up to regulate big tech companies and the complex technologies they have developed. In the current crisis this is especially relevant because governments have partnered with big tech companies to develop COVID-19 contagion tracking systems. The question is whether governments are equipped to ensure our privacy. They cannot focus solely on stopping the spread of the disease, they must secure our privacy at the same time. The governments’ responsibility is to make sure that data is being collected for public health purposes only and that it will not and cannot be used for other reasons, either by governments themselves or by their tech company partners. 


Impact on Media and Advertising


Previous conversations around privacy and data took place when most consumers were on a desktop. However, now this conversation is in the context of mobile tech and location tracking, and in a world of subscriptions and streaming. Additionally, people have become more aware about privacy in relation to their data and location tracking, and so we anticipate this will be the new privacy flash point. In the end, it comes back to value exchange.  If consumers don't understand the value exchange, at what point will they just give up and accept the trade off?  For streaming the benefits are quite nice and easy, but if the streaming company is part of a bigger company that also does many other things with personal data, then the action of the consumer might be different.


From a media point of view, it means we’re going to have more personalized service subscription models with obvious positive benefit. In the context of COVID-19, people will probably grow accustomed to sharing personal data more often as part of the value exchange for having their lives back. However, will we see a point where people will revolt and demand better from their businesses and governments? 


We don’t have all the answers, but we do know this is a new era and there will be a significant shift in consumer attitudes towards privacy. As members of the community, we will have to wait and see the direction that shift takes. And as advertisers, we need to closely monitor the changes and be ready to respond with substance and sensitivity.

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