Where I live, just across the bay from San Francisco, most companies are settling into their seventh week of remote work. We’re finding a new rhythm, we’ve adapted to our new routines, and the desire for interaction with others, stitched so deeply into our DNA, hasn’t gone wholly unsatisfied. Mostly, however, we just want to get back to life as we once knew it. A life filled with bookstores and baseball games, hugs and handshakes. A life filled with thriving small businesses, low unemployment levels, and classrooms filled with children counting down the minutes to recess. Wouldn’t that be nice? What would you give just to get back to that “normal” that was so easy to take for granted?
That’s the billion-dollar question: What would you give up? Life’s little luxuries? Absolutely. Everyday conveniences? You can have them all.
Would you give up your data? Your privacy? How much of it? … All of it?
What we’re willing to share in terms of personal data may hold the answer to how quickly we can crest this pandemic. Someday, hopefully not far beyond the horizon, science will reduce COVID-19 to a seasonal annoyance. It may take more time than we’d prefer, but this waking nightmare won’t last forever. Indeed, that’s the endgame: Bury the novel coronavirus in the history books somewhere between the cholera outbreak of 1910 and the 1968 flu pandemic. An angry scourge that devastated, and then disappeared. We’re not there yet, however, and to buy time before a vaccine emerges, we need data. Your data.
The tricky part is that convincing people to share data requires trust. Trust that those with it will do the right thing; that they’ll protect it as if it were their own. Technology brands at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic must take a hard look at whether they have earned consumer trust. Have they handled consumer data appropriately in the past? If they haven’t, have they learned from their mistakes? And, if so, why should anyone believe? A little transparency and humanity go a long way, but gaining consumer trust remains an uphill battle for tech companies dabbling in health data. However, our pandemic-free future will require that we trust someone to do the right thing with our data. That’s what it will take to restore our old way of life: good data and lots of it.
Technology companies poking around consumer data must prove themselves both worthy of trust and capable of staying the course when pressure is applied from all directions. It’s one thing to provide access to data in normal circumstances, it’s quite another when third-parties begin lobbying convincingly for concessions. Can you, a noble, trustworthy brand, convince your consumers that you’ll always have their best interests at heart?
Two unlikely partners are pressure-testing this delicate balance right now. The Red Sox and Yankees of Silicon Valley, Apple and Google, have come together in an unprecedented show of collaboration for contact tracing. This historic partnership is a big deal on many levels, and it may hold the key to reducing the impact of COVID-19 as we await medical intervention. By all accounts, their approach is honest, transparent, and in the spirit of doing the right thing. And, importantly, it’s believed to be secure.
But what happens when external forces apply pressure? Case in point: France has urged both companies to ease privacy rules on contact tracing. According to reports, France is running into a technical hurdle that will limit the effectiveness of regional contact tracing efforts. Perhaps an innocuous plea with minimal user risk, perhaps not. France was the first to push for more invasive measures, but they won’t be the last. Will Apple and Google make concessions as pressure mounts or will they hold the line to protect their consumers? It’s a short trip between complex, problem-solving technology that informs and protects, and surveillance state, making it imperative that if we’re inviting tech companies closer to our data, we also hold them accountable to doing the right thing all the time and not just when it’s easy.
When determining whether you’re sharing the right information to build trust, consider the following questions:
- Are we being transparent about the data we’re using and how we’re using it?
- Are we being transparent about how we will protect the data we’re using?
- Are we being transparent about how we will dispose of the data once it is no longer useful for its stated use case (hugely important given current circumstances)?
- How have we handled breaches in the past? How have we handled external pressures in the past?
Some tech companies bring a flimsy track record to the COVID-19 war room. Proceed with caution. Others have their own data-driven business agenda, but appear to be attacking this problem with the right blend of good intentions, transparency, and finely tuned innovation. It’s likely that we won’t get past this quickly enough without them.
This is an unpredictable time that has sparked unexpected allegiances, all in the name of human health. Rivals are becoming partners, enemies becoming friends – temporarily, at least. Many of the technology companies racing to the fore and taking up a leadership position in the COVID-19 battle have stumbled in the past, but maybe – just maybe – they’ve learned enough from those mistakes to get it right when we need them most. Collaboration is a good sign; transparency is even better. Fortitude in the face of mounting pressure perhaps the best indicator of all that the technology industry can help us out of this crisis and back home to the world we once knew.