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The data privacy imperative of the tech sector

Alexandra Moorhouse
Alexandra Moorhouse
Marketing Director, UK&I
7 min read
9 February 2021

Somewhat ironically, in a world dominated by the overwhelming need to ‘share’, consumer awareness and prioritisation of privacy has reached peak importance. Privacy is no longer just about policy; in 2021, firms must go much further than simply complying with regulations if they stand a chance of building and retaining trust among the WiFi generation.

There‘s been an increasing focus on privacy since Europe passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, which although was implemented to mitigate the unlawful use and distribution of personal data, fell under heavy scrutiny for its lack of enforcement. That changed in 2020, with fines for violating companies increasing by 260%. As of December 2020, more than 300 fines had been issued, with Google, British Airways and Marriott Hotels among the worst offenders, facing collective fees of almost €90 million.

Meanwhile, the US began taking steps towards similar regulations. The state of California upped its game with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), giving residents the right to see what personal data companies collect from them and how it is used. The CCPA also makes it possible for consumers to opt-out of sharing their data. 

It’s not surprising that companies’ attitudes are changing to meet this demand. Following on the heels of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook launched a campaign to increase user awareness of how to control their privacy settings and Apple’s unmissable, privacy-focused ad campaign made the tech giant synonymous with the buzzword.

Accountable to consumers

Despite the bright spotlight that has been put on privacy, studies show that industry still has a long way to go to meet user expectations. McKinsey surveyed 1,000 consumers on data collection and privacy, finding financial and healthcare institutions to have the highest trust ratings at 44%. Trust of consumer packaged goods and entertainment and media industries rang in at only 10%, a four way tie at last place alongside agriculture, and oil and gas. The average consumer trust rating was only 18%, demonstrating the priority privacy needs to be given across all industries and sectors.

These statistics stand to reason in light of documentaries like Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which raises concerns about the data gathered from social media platforms and search engines that are used every second of the day. Though social media companies have deemed this documentary and others like it as ‘sensational’, the level of awareness raised has caused thousands of consumers to delete their accounts in demand for more ethical policies and better regulation from tech firms.

Breaking news or rumour mill

Restoring user confidence and trust encompasses a much larger arena than just maintaining privacy. It is also about ensuring information is presented accurately and truthfully. 

In recent years, assertions of fake news have plagued the media landscape. The Social Dilemma also raised questions regarding the trustworthiness of online news media, citing fake news spreads six times faster than real news.

We have witnessed the power fake news can have, affecting global health, impacting elections, and manipulating markets and economies. More recently, fake news has evolved alongside tech advancements into ‘deep fake’ images, videos and audio, where AI is used to manipulate and replace faces, expressions and voices. Perhaps most famously, the technology has been used to create a clip of Barack Obama defaming the then President, Donald Trump. Although often regarded as lighthearted entertainment, the use in news media could be incredibly damaging.

But it isn’t curtains for the truth just yet. After much complaint, social media sites are taking the management of fake news into their own hands. In the run up to the American presidential election, Twitter implemented a series of tools to highlight unsubstantiated claims, many of them from Donald Trump. Going even further, after Trump’s allegations of election fraud led to a march on the US Capitol, Twitter took more stringent action, permanently banning his use of the platform to prevent further spread of misleading comments that could incite a second wave of violence. 

Twitter’s suspension was followed by Facebook, who indefinitely suspended the ex-President, shortly followed by a raft of other tech firms including Amazon, Snapchat and Twitch. Twitter has also started a pilot of its “Birdwatch” programme in the US, the aim of which is to assist in combating fake news by enabling users to flag suspicious posts. 

The truth is also coming through thanks to companies like UK-based Logically. This start-up, founded by MIT and Cambridge alum Lyric Jain, meshes human intelligence with AI to discern factual news, social discussions and images from fiction; helping to level the playing field for keeping tech honest.

Why honest tech matters

Tech is advancing at record speed and as its applications advance, so does the world’s reliance on it. In the current climate, governments have turned to tech to develop contact tracing apps to fight the spread of Covid-19. Although evidence shows that contact tracing works, some members of the general public are hesitant to volunteer their data to these apps out of concern for their privacy, and an inherent distrust of tech and government.

The efficacy of tech and its application boils down to trust. If consumers do not have faith that their privacy, information and online habits will be kept in confidence, the successful implementation of tech will be almost impossible. There is hope that that trust will be earned as companies like Apple and Google roll out new exposure notification systems that are designed to support privacy.

Trust is a responsibility

There are varying schools of thought behind the psychology of trust, including whether it is given or earned, and whether it is an emotional state or process. In any case, building trust is a responsibility for companies and they need proactive plans to develop best practices when it comes to upholding privacy.

Innovation in the collection of user data is rapidly progressing. McKinsey advises companies to take steps like data-mapping, using readily available tools to keep tabs on categories of customer information. Another recommendation is privacy-by-design, with automatic logout timers, agreements to cookie settings and suggested passwords.

Other means of establishing a bond of trust with consumers can come from achieving certifications from independent third parties.  B Corp is an organisation that provides certification for companies that achieve the highest ethical standards of performance, including transparency.

Patagonia, a registered B Corporation, is a model example of transparency and trustworthiness. The company is known for its Footprint initiative, making its supply chain and details of how its products are made freely available to consumers. The company has also used data-mapping to build its privacy policy, providing customers with a clear, easy-to-understand table of what information they share with Patagonia and how the brand uses it.

Privacy has been redefined and, in addition to updating privacy policies and processes, companies must accept accountability of protecting privacy to restore and increase consumer trust. It needs to be the top priority for companies across the globe if they wish to survive the scrutiny of the public eye.

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