News and Insights

Data-Privacy Considerations in Our New Normal

June 16, 2020

Where there’s technology, there are growing questions around what to store, how to store it and whether to share it.

In looking back on these past few months of social distancing, it’s safe to say that technology, in every form or fashion, has become a more essential part of our daily life than ever before. As individuals participate in a Zoom call, consider whether to download a contact tracing app or simply make a trip to the grocery store, we see that technology has helped us maintain human connectivity and a semblance of normal. However, where there’s technology, there are also issues of data privacy—what to store, how to store it and whether to share it.

Now that technology has become more intertwined with the necessary operations of our daily lives, as a sense of normalcy slowly returns, the considerations Americans will have about privacy after the pandemic ends will likely be larger and more encompassing than ever before. While many may have been willing to give up additional elements of privacy in exchange for more pressing issues during the pandemic, that will likely change as the pandemic moves into our rear-view mirror.

To begin with, whether it’s for health and safety reasons or to simply remain solvent, how to utilize consumer data in new ways is a conversation happening within all sectors and industries. Almost every sector has had to deal with a supply chain issue during the pandemic and almost all of us have experienced what happens when a supply chain shortage occurs. Because of this, corporate boards are already reconsidering what consumer data they share with governments, suppliers and other companies as a means to prevent future product shortages.

Furthermore, consumer data is now being turned over to governments and public health authorities in the name of health and safety. According to Bloomberg, companies like Google and Facebook are now stripping the consumer data they’ve collected of personal identification markers (which is supposed to “anonymize” the data) and aggregating it and providing it to researchers, public-health authorities and government agencies. Don’t be fooled, though: While the claim of anonymization is meant to soothe fears, according to Nature it only takes 15 data points to make 99.98% of people identifiable in a database of 7 million people.

Anonymized or not, American sentiment on contact tracing is evenly split: According to a recent Pew Research poll, 52% of respondents stated that it would be at least somewhat acceptable for the government to trace the movements of those who have been affected by COVID-19. While there is much discussion on how practical widespread use of a contact tracing app actually is, implementation is already underway. Individuals in North and South Dakota have already signed up for a contact tracing app, indicating that its use will continue to be a point of conversation.

Even now, as a majority of us and our clients work from home, we’re using the internet in ways our jobs didn’t previously require. As a result, we’re now emitting, knowingly or unknowingly, large amounts of data we previously hadn’t. Just think of the high-profile issues of Zoom sharing user data with Facebook, to say nothing of its feature of tracking your attention while participating in a Zoom meeting. How and when our data is used and for what means, is something we’re continuing to come to terms with.

While the terrible and sudden nature of the virus gave way to new and necessary realities for data sharing, its unlikely to continue indefinitely. As we ever so slowly ease into post-pandemic life, consumers and clients may want a more thorough accounting of what data is collected on them and how it’s used. While harm or benefit of data sharing may differ depending on who you talk to, what’s clear is that the overall trend is for more transparency, not less. The privacy considerations mentioned above don’t pose existential threats by any means but it’s important to know how both the discussion around, and use of, consumer data is changing. Monitoring how new considerations around data privacy could impact both individuals and the businesses and organizations they’re associated with is both good practice and good preparation.