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The data dilemma: changing the privacy landscape post covid-19

Michael Ingrassia, president and general counsel at Truata, discusses the effects that COVID-19 will have on both the private and public sector as even greater swathes of personal data are collected, and how technology providers can play a critical, yet responsible role in this new environment so that personal privacy does not become the latest victim of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 virus is upending life for many of us. Its ultimate impact – beyond lives tragically cut short, jobs lost and savings decimated – will take some time to understand. Data analytics is playing a critical part in the battle against the pandemic and its role is set to grow further as we adjust to these unprecedented circumstances. However, as we see the benefits of big data insights, we must not ignore the associated risks.

For the private sector, this means expanding digital footprints of consumers. Social distancing measures are resulting in dramatically increased online activity, taxing the capacity of networks to adjust. This will of course in the short-term result in much more social media usage, online searching and news viewing and online purchases. But it’s also reasonable to conclude that such activity will become sticky, both because people will become acculturated to more online engagements (e.g., people learning to embrace online workouts from the comfort of their homes vs fitness clubs because people will retreat from interaction in crowded environments (e.g., people purchasing clothes online vs. taking crowded mass transit to the busy city streets and the bustling store). The net result will be dramatically enhanced digital footprints for all of us that the tech behemoths will want to mine for valuable insights that will allow them to more effectively target customers and enhance their offerings. And this temptation will be all the greater if a massive and deep recession takes root, making the identification of prime customers and the upselling to them all the more critical as disposable income dwindles.

For the public sector, the digital footprint of citizens (when it comes to geo-location or other physical activities) may not increase – and it may even decrease. But it may become all the more important for governments to access these digital footprints, again especially with respect to their citizens’ (or visitors’) geo-location or other physical activities. While social distancing measures and other government-imposed restrictions are in place, governments will want to understand where their citizens are going – are they crowding into certain areas, are they spending too much time in stores, etc. But, even after such restrictions are lifted, governments will want to analyse their citizens’ personal data to understand where they are going, particularly if they are sick so that others they come in contact with can be identified, traced, tested and treated. And, thinking even further ahead, governments will likely be anxious to not get caught on the back foot for the next disease or public emergency, the way they were with COVID-19. They’ll want to have as much data as possible at their disposal, and the ability to analyse that data for insights that can help society as quickly and efficiently as possible, in advance of the next emergency. 

So it’s logical to assume that one medium to long-term legacy of COVID-19 is that both the private sector and the public sector will be mining ever greater swathes of our personal data for ever more powerful analytical insights in the coming months and years. This isn’t intrinsically problematic. In fact, to the extent it results in companies providing better products and services and in governments better addressing the next public emergency, this would be great for everyone. But only if the exploding uses of data are conducted responsibly. 

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