COVID-19 and the privacy problem

Like many facets of business and life, the crisis is showing us what needs to be fixed, and it's no different with privacy

Redefining privacy as a human right

A discussion around privacy can’t be had without looking at the meaning of privacy. For the Ethics Centre’s Dr Beard, it;s about acknowledging our understanding of privacy changes depending on the context.

When it comes to the argument that Google, Apple and other tech companies already know everything about us, so why be concerned about a tracing app, for example, the discussion has lost its context.

“Context really matters,” Dr Beard said. “And what people are willing to give up in exchange for community health and wellbeing by comparison to what they might be willing to give up in exchange for some other goods. That’s going to be variable and that needs to be part of the conversation.

“It highlights an important distinction that needs to be made between how we respond in terms of the data we are willing to hand off in our capacity as consumers engaging with organisations, and what kind of information we are willing to hand off in our in our relationship with government.”

It's clear we will continue to have conversations around data in a range of different contexts. "Hopefully what we can do is learn from what the conversation looks like in regard to the COVIDSafe app and find relevant analogies when we're having privacy conversations in different contexts,” Dr Beard said.

Australian Privacy Foundation chair, David Vaile, told CMO there needs to be better transparency around the collection and use of personal information to protect people’s privacy. He also believes informed consent is a key plank of privacy protections.

When it comes to something like the COVIDSafe app, it’s about providing protocols for communication, source code, data structures and design specifications. When it comes to business, it’s about being transparent about what personal information is collected and for what purposes.

But, Vaile said, informed consent is largely missing. When people don’t have proper visibility or understanding about whether their privacy is being protected by digital platforms and businesses, it can give rise to “techlash”, a backlash against the tech giants like Google and Facebook as well as behavioural marketing outfits.

“It becomes about trying to develop a psychographic profile to nudge you in certain ways. You shouldn’t be tempted to click a button because it’s a your favourite colour, and personalisation can do that,” Vaile said.

One of the ways of strengthening privacy in Australian is enabling people to sue for breach of privacy, Vaile continued. This provision doesn’t currently exist in Australia.

“It’s been recommended by five reviews over the last 30 years and we really are the odd one out in relation to other countries that have this right," he said. "What this means is that individuals are left on their own and there’s no protection and no restraint. There's no ability to sue as an individual or in a class action for breaches.

“And what you get is people who do the right thing, seeing others who are much more exploitative and intrusive getting away with it. It’s a market failure. But it’s good the ACCC is looking at some of this in its inquiries to hopefully improve the operation of the market as well as giving people more protection.”

Privacy and the protection of personal information needs to be viewed as human right with the same protections extended into the digital realm that exist in the off-line world, according to Ping Identity chief customer officer, Richard Bird. He suggested current privacy concerns reveal how governments, not just Australia, have shown very little regard for actually protecting people and their data.

“The government and corporate enterprise track record of protecting citizens and consumers is pretty terrible,” said Bird.

Bird recommended a uniform worldwide privacy framework to address what has been missing in the designs for digital privacy up to this point. “It is about extending our rights as citizens, for those who live in free democracies, into the digital realm," he said.

"We need to stop treating the digital world as if it is separate and apart from the real world, from the analogue world. It is not.

Privacy in the digital world can only be achieved by recognising we are protecting the rights of our citizens, our consumers, our employees, of all humankind. It's not just protecting someone’s information held in some database somewhere.”

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