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Has the pandemic changed people’s feelings around personal data?

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / carlos castilla)

Whether it was helping healthcare services see patients virtually, or helping brands move closer to their housebound customers, in a year that saw a deadly virus close the door on physical interactions, technology became the window through which we all carried on.

And at every step of the way, data has played an integral role.

As a result, the world left 2020 a lot more digitalized than how it entered. And as we slowly begin to rebuild our economies, the importance of data is only set to intensify.

Some businesses are already reaping the rewards from their investments in the digital infrastructure they hastily assembled or expanded last year. It has led to better data capture and analysis, helping these enterprises to keep up with their customers’ changing demands and remain resilient in uncertain times. 

These organizations are now converting those early reactionary survival moves into short-to-medium term digital strategies. They’re fundamentally reorganizing their tech stacks to better leverage the data troves they now collect from their customers and the public at large.

Governmental bodies are similarly eager to make better use of public data to combat Covid-19. Data accrued during this pandemic would go a long way to preparing us for a future one, making it incredibly valuable.

However, some people still largely feel uncomfortable at the idea of sharing their personal health data, especially with the government. YouGov survey data, published in The Lancet, of over 2,000 UK respondents found just 21 percent said they were willing to share their anonymized personal health information with the government. This reticence presents a significant barrier to healthcare organizations. It also raises a salient question: why are we fine with sharing some types of data but not others? And most importantly – how do we change this?

Lessons from retail

The first thing to remember is that some people are more cautious than others about sharing their data and how it is used. But some industries, such as retail, have made huge strides in reducing these concerns over the years.

For example, in 2018, 47 percent of UK customers said they were ‘very concerned’ about the use of their data, according to research from Deloitte. In 2020, that percentage was down to 24 percent – a 50 percent reduction in just two years. How was this possible?

Well, one simple reason is that maybe we’ve just grown used to creating a lot more data. In 2015, people had an average of 3.8 smart devices, as of 2020, that was up to 6.2. Increasing data creation has just become part of life.

Retail and marketing use of data is generally less intrusive than, say, data used for healthcare. Legislation such as GDPR may have also introduced an element of calm into the public psyche as some are more confident that businesses have stronger incentives to protect their personal information.

However, one of the most powerful factors that has gone towards changing the public’s mindset towards data collection has been some organizations’ ability to provide people with added benefits from it such as a growing awareness that the “free” internet is subsidized by data driven marketing.

Personalized recommendation engines have become increasingly more adept at directing people to the next item to buy or show to binge. And they can do this because they’ve invested in the infrastructure needed to better analyze customer data.

Over the last year, we’ve seen that investment pay off, with digital companies such as Amazon and Netflix widening their lead over traditional retail and media avenues, largely because of the way they’ve been able to utilize data to the benefit of their customers.

So, how can governments learn from the private sector and make their customers – citizens – more comfortable with their collecting of health data for its challenges with much higher stakes?

Trust, transparency and benefit

Trust in Western governments have been on the decline for a few years now. In the UK, trust in the government is at a 40-year-low according to a British Social Attitudes Survey conducted in 2019. It found only 15 percent of respondents said they trust the government either "most of the time or "just about always”.

However, officials could view this period as an opportunity to renew public faith – and better data utilization may be the key. Because the pandemic has given everyone a reason to root for government, as its success is the nation’s route back to normality.

The government could make a concerted effort to digitally transform public health bodies’ data and analytics capabilities, making them better at collecting, analyzing, and securing health data. It would not only help them find more effective ways to combat the pandemic, but also improve individual care, create better health care services, improve diagnosis, and develop new treatments to prevent disease. 

But with health data, some of the most personal data out there, deeper concerns around data protection will need to be addressed head on. Breaches, hacks, or even government overreach are concerns some of us have when it comes to giving greater access to our personal data.

It all comes down to being accountable for the data you are handling, maintaining the security and integrity of the data collected. And whether it’s a government trying to create an effective contact tracing system, or a retailer trying to run a loyalty scheme, data protection is the first place you will win or lose people’s trust. Data minimization, aggregation and anonymization are key concepts when it comes to fostering trust around data processed by the state.

So, as we enter an increasingly data-driven future, the better an organization becomes at demonstrating their ability to ethically and transparently use data, the more trust they’ll foster.

And the only way to do that is through digital transformation. Once organizations transform, not only will they be able to keep user data secure, but they’ll also be able to provide users with added value from it – and that’s when true loyalty is bred.

Dr. Sachiko Scheuing, European Privacy Officer, Acxiom

Dr. Sachiko Scheuing serves as European Privacy Officer for Acxiom, an IPG company. In her role, Sachiko combines 20 years of theoretical and practice experience in the marketing and advertising industries to manage Acxiom’s government affairs and legal and regulatory compliance across Europe. She also provides country-specific and broader European-level advice to Acxiom clients and colleagues about data protection and privacy matters. Sachiko joined Acxiom in October 1999 and her first role was as Acxiom’s chief analyst. She is serving her third term as the co-chairwoman of the Federation of European Direct and interactive Marketing Association (FEDMA), based in Brussels. Sachiko also contributes articles to trade magazines and academic journals. Besides FEDMA, she is active in many European and global privacy and marketing associations as well as think tanks.