Privacy Post COVID-19

I made a brief appearance on NBC/CNBC last night talking about what tech companies are doing to help monitor contract tracing of COVID-19. That discussion spurred me to write a bit more on the subject. It has been interesting to monitor the sentiment and conversations around this in the media and on social media. At a high-level, contract tracing seems to be an important part of both public information as well as a method to hopefully start to re-open the global economy. The right decisions need to be made by our local and national leaders and intertwined in the ability to make good decisions is good data.

The thing that strikes me about this moment in time is when we find ourselves in a situation like this, we may be willing to make more trade-off (even if short term) around privacy than we normally would in normal times. I personally would want to know if I was somewhere, like a store, at a time when someone who tested positive or had symptoms of the virus was also present. This would let me know to more closely monitor myself and perhaps stop going out entirely for a longer period of time. But contact and hyper location tracing are the only ways to accomplish this. Of course, there are ways to still do this and protect our privacy, and I think Apple and Google’s collaboration here accomplishes this by making sure that information is not traceable to the individual by personal information identifiers.

Similarly, in a way, Facebook partnered with Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological research center to offer data maps in an attempt to locate, and visualize COVID-19 hotspots before they get too large.

In both cases, people seem to be willing to give up information they may have otherwise been more hesitant to give up in order to stay safe, healthy, and be informed. In both cases, the consumer has to have some level of trust in the institution. Google partnering with Apple, in this case, was wise and rode the coattails of the years of Apple entrenching their privacy position. Google could not have done something on their own, in the same way, Facebook could not have, and both needed a partner where more public sentiment around trust exists.

While these collaborations are necessary for this moment in time, and consumers may be willing to make some short-term trad-offs around privacy, particularly around their location, I want it to be clear these trade-offs are truly short term and we aren’t giving up more than we are able to get back over the long-haul. I say that because the companies I mention are not going to be the only ones asking consumers to share information, sometimes highly sensitive information, in exchange for some peace of mind during this situation. Fear is a driving factor in many communities, and that fear can lead many to agree to things they would not otherwise. This is why it is extremely important this gets thought through, so we don’t end up losing more privacy going forward.

Yes, it all comes down to who you trust. But, my concern is in moment of fear and paranoia, people may not be as rational as they normally are when it comes to their rights around privacy. Making too big of a compromise with the wrong company right now could make it more difficult, if not impossible, to get some of that privacy back.

In times like these, with the media driving fear and paranoia, it puts consumers in a tough spot, and again in a place where technology companies can help or take advantage. My hope is big tech seizes this opportunity to be a helper and have people’s best interests at heart, even going outside of their customer base to help.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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