Troubling times lead to even bigger concerns about data privacy standards

- October 16, 2020 4 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock
Whether it’s for personal or professional purposes, our reliance on technology has never been greater.

From ordering groceries or joining a social media craze like TikTok, to running a business or simply safely visiting a restaurant, chances are you’ve become accustomed to uploading your personal information online over the past six months.

While this reliance on tech has, and continues to act as a bridge over troubled waters, it also poses a sinister and serious threat that we must urgently combat.

With so many businesses’ revenue models reliant on the collection and use of personal information, our data – now more valuable than oil by some estimates – has become highly sought after by unscrupulous, increasingly sophisticated agents. It’s vulnerability has only heightened during the ongoing pandemic which has catalysed a situation rife for privacy abuse and security failures.

Unprecedented amounts of personal information are being shared and stored online as governments use data to track the spread of the virus. While any move to contain the physical spread of the virus is an imperative necessity, it shouldn’t come at the expense of compromising our personal data.

Unfortunately, as important as it is for public health, the use of technology to track the spread of COVID-19 raises privacy concerns.


Growing risks

Take the Federal Government’s COVIDSafe app, for example; the safety and security of which was questioned by many experts when it was released earlier this year. Some solutions, safeguards and improvements have subsequently been discussed, but in the weeks after it’s release – at the height of the pandemic locally and when millions of Australian’s were registering for the app – serious questions were raised.

Using Bluetooth to track users, the app exchanges encrypted information based on who users come into contact with. Health authorities can access the name, age range, postcode and mobile number of the user. The data is stored on a user’s phone for up to 21 days, and if they test positive for the virus, they can upload their stored contacts to a central repository held by the federal Health Department. The concerns, however, were levied at storing the data of millions of Australian’s on a single database given the risk from a single cyber attack.

It’s a risk that, unfortunately, is becoming more and more prevalent. While the pandemic has intensified again recently in Melbourne, Australia has been comparatively successful containing the spread of the virus. Maintaining that success will be dependent – for the foreseeable future and potentially even indefinitely – on surveillance technologies becoming effectively compulsory for any public and social engagement.


QR goes viral

Hospitality businesses and many sectors such as retail and hair and beauty, require that customers scan a QR code, upload their personal data and display the results before they are permitted to enter. That means that long-term, society will be reliant on systems that pose very real and very serious threats for it to function.

What’s more, with millions of Australians still working remotely and likely to continue doing so for some time, data literacy – or lack thereof – is brought into sharper focus. The recently released 2020 Unisys Security Index found that only 26% of Australian’s have concerns about cyber security while working from home. That doesn’t mean there’s any less of a risk; on the contrary in fact. Coupling that apparent lack of concern – even naivety – and the fact that their concern has actually decreased since 2019 with the increasingly sophisticated nature of hackers today, the potential for cyber crime is only exacerbated. 

But how do we combat this? Businesses must be aware of their obligations and be diligent in their approach to both safeguarding data and educating their teams about best practice. Today, there’s no excuse for cutting corners. For example, businesses should be cautious of free software. Free software often sounds too good to be true, and it is. You’re not paying with dollars but with data of employees and customers. The damaged reputation that can occur following a breach can be far more costly.

Employees themselves should ask their employers about the security of their workplace software, what data is gathered, and how and where it is stored. Such measures improve data literacy, the result of which should be smarter, safer and better-informed decisions, services and processes. Raising awareness of a threat that is distant and vague for so many Australians requires discipline, dedication and discourse.


Digital threats

When a global pandemic sweeps the world, it’s easy for people to focus on physical threats rather than digital ones. However, cyber education is essential. From individuals to government and tech leaders there must be an honest, open and ongoing conversation about data, privacy and security to keep the pressure on everyone to act responsibly. 

As the ongoing economic and health crisis continues, businesses may be tempted to cut corners to stay viable, but that is short-sighted. They have an opportunity to establish and build trust with consumers at a time when it might be one of the greatest competitive advantages for business today. 

During the recent Federal Budget, the Government pledged funding for its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, to both increase our cyber security skills and counter cyber criminals. Any funding to create a safer online world is a positive and must be celebrated, but it must also be the start of a real and long-term commitment – safeguarding our data isn’t a one-time fix, and progress isn’t possible unless people and businesses demand it and regulators enforce it.

Big Tech, after all, is not going to disincentivise itself from using private information when it still has so much to gain from doing so. Until we create an environment in which data is safeguarded and privacy treated as sacred, we can never truly be empowered by technology’s potential. The need for it today, after all, has never been greater.

  • Vijay Sundaram is the Chief Strategy Officer of global technology platform, Zoho. With 45+ apps, Zoho is the cloud-based operating system for businesses of any size, in any industry.