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Covid-19 and Surveillance: A Personalisation-Privacy Paradox for Brands? (with Craig Griffin)

The Bangkok Post’s editorial on 16th May 2020 highlights the issues that many people face in the age of digitalization and the aftermath of Covid-19. Thais are being told to “accept a ‘new normal’ that may compromise their privacy through a mobile application known as Thai Chana (Thais win)”. The platform and app are a venture between the government and Thai businesses that have to implement its use.

The government insists that this ‘track and trace’ is necessary and have dismissed concerns about data privacy and a new era of surveillance. They say the information will only be used for disease control and stress the simplicity of scanning a QR code to check in and out. However, they have avoided the question of whether it is mandatory, pushing the responsibility of collecting phone numbers to business operators. Fake websites and apps have fueled the controversy.

Too much tracking?

The situation is not unique to Thailand, as many countries have gone down the route of ‘track and trace’ approaches to managing Covid-10. However, other countries have stronger data protection regulations.  Concerns have been heightened because Thailand has delayed the implementation of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) until next year. Should we be concerned that our personal data is being used in this way (and potentially mis-used)?

And how will concerns change in the future as the immediate threat of Covid-19 diminishes? The Chinese city of Hangzhou, home to Alibaba and other local technology companies, saw a backlash when it proposed broadening the use of the local ‘track and trace’ app. Their idea was to integrate the data from the tracking system with other health indicators and develop index rankings based on people’s medical records and lifestyle choices (with colour coding!). Drink a glass of wine, and your index score would drop by 1.5 points (out of 100). Hangzhou authorities called this a “firewall to enhance people’s health and immunity”.

Even for a country where most people have accepted the need for tracking, despite the lack of transparency about privacy, this suggestion went too far for many. Many Chinese people declared on social media that, “We have no privacy left whatsoever”. There have also been fears that the information could be mis-used by insurance companies or to screen job applicants. Even the Chinese Communist Party stated in their recent national meeting, “the demand for data security has become increasingly urgent”.

Brands need to be trusted

The fact that businesses are cooperating with government to implement the Thai Chana system, also implicates them in any fall out that may come from its use. There are already stories about junk messages that have been linked to the sharing of phone numbers. Any lapses of privacy may have huge repercussions for consumer trust in those businesses and brands.

Edelman’s latest report highlights data privacy as an increasingly important driver of trust around the world, with 55% of people saying that they feel vulnerable to brands’ use of personal data and customer tracking. As we noted in our article on brand trust, people do care how brands behave and will act on behaviours that are not appropriate. Edelman wrote that “trustwashing” (using social issues as a marketing ploy) is making consumers more skeptical, and that overall trust in brands is down. Only one-third of Edelman’s global sample trust the brands that they use.

Trust requires transparency

Edelman also report that many people believe that, “technology is out of control”. However, their data does show that Thais are more trusting than others, and also that Thais trust businesses more than they trust media and government. Another recent study from Kantar agrees, finding that only 20% of Thais have concerns about the amount of personal data brands have on them (compared with 40% globally).

The pandemic, and specifically the lockdown, has accelerated any concerns about privacy. Governments and businesses are collecting more and more information about people, and at the same time we are all using digital services more and more and ‘feeding the beast’. Ultimately, when PDPA comes into effect in Thailand, brands will have a new set of responsibilities for how they collect, store, and protect customer information.

One important lesson from Covid-19 is that trust is fragile. It takes a long time to build trust, but that trust can evaporate in seconds. The Bangkok Post editorial concluded that if the government insists on tracking people it must be transparent about protecting their privacy, including assurances that data will be erased after a certain period of time. Brands need to follow this advice, and to build and retain trust they need to put their customers first. They also need to be transparent about how and when they collect personal data and, most importantly, how they use that data. Brands that fail in these obligations, will not be forgiven.

 

About the Study

The findings are the result of a collaboration between insights consultancies across 17 countries. The effort was led by Beyond Research, based in Milan, and covered North and South America, Europe, Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Desk research covered multiple data sources including local country case studies, Google search trends, newspaper articles, and social media along with country-level cultural analysis.

 

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