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Tech Companies Need New Thinking to Sustain Themselves Going Forward

Establishing a healthy data culture will require new partnerships.

Victor Evangelista studies the intersection of mathematics and anthropology and is a Long Dash alum.

In its April 7th op-ed, “Privacy Cannot Be a Casualty of the Coronavirus,” The New York Times editorial board delivered a salient reminder when it comes to digital privacy: “Americans aren’t willingly surrendering their online identities during this pandemic—many are being compelled to do so by their schools, family or work.” 

“For those fortunate enough to have laptops and reliable broadband internet at home, it is not sufficient to simply update privacy policies or customer agreements,” the board continued. “Americans need a guarantee that conversations held over video chat won’t be data collection events.” 

This article, and many others like it, have highlighted an escalating tension brought on by the virus. The crisis has forced a deeper integration of technology into our lives—and, in the process, has re-ignited concerns about the protection of civil liberties and prompted intensifying conversations around data and privacy.

As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, technology companies should prepare for a reckoning from both the government and consumers. In order to emerge stronger after the pandemic and beyond, technology companies must proactively facilitate an open dialogue around data collection and privacy, while simultaneously advancing innovative solutions in close partnership with consumers. 

Facilitating an open dialogue around data collection and privacy

Even before COVID-19 struck, Americans were concerned about their data. A 2019 Pew Research study found that 81 percent of Americans not only feel that they have little to no control over what data companies collect about them, but also that the risks associated with data collection outweigh the benefits. Further, a majority of Americans (70 percent) feel that their data is less secure than it was five years ago. 

In a moment of heightened uncertainty and increased reliance on technology, COVID-19 threatens to negatively impact consumers’ relationships to technology and technology brands for years to come. This event therefore underscores the urgent need for companies to prioritize forthright communication and transparency with regard to data collection. Proactively advocating for data and privacy literacy and modern, transparent collection and consent procedures will only benefit brands as people attempt to recreate our world following the pandemic. 

This posture starts with proactive education to foster data and privacy literacy. For example, a majority of data breaches are due to malicious or criminal attacks, according to IBM’s 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report. People who have a more advanced understanding of data are more likely to correctly categorize breaches as such and not as a byproduct of gross negligence.

This posture also includes forthright communication around data collection and consent procedures. Given that 44 percent of people either want to opt out of data collection but don’t know how, or don’t understand what it means to opt out, there’s a significant opportunity for brands that can offer consumers a feeling of control over their data.  

With the implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in January, the danger to brands that drag their feet on this is brought to the fore. Not only can consumers now appeal to the law should a company violate a CCPA data security requirement, but brands that mishandle or fail to address consumers before it gets to this point can come across as apathetic. Facebook, for example, in its efforts to comply with the CCPA, released a tool called “Off-Facebook Activity,” which allows users to de-identify or delete data collected from third-parties. However, the company was quickly criticized for putting “a tiny sticking plaster on a much wider problem”—and further, for “not telling [users] everything.” 

In contrast, brands can communicate their own concerns and insights as part of the larger conversation on data and technology. Microsoft president Brad Smith’s letter addressed to the Washington legislature offers an example of how this approach can help a brand simultaneously step ahead of the legislative curve and stay in alliance with customers. 

Given the renewed interest in privacy prompted by the pandemic, along with the new behaviors brought on by quarantine, this is a moment where a lack of action is a dangerous decision. Communication and transparency may be differentiators now, but both are going to become table stakes as we emerge from the crisis. Brands that do not actively address consumer concerns and contribute thoughtfully to regulation will only continue to clumsily handle weaknesses of our contemporary data culture. 

Advancing innovative solutions in partnership with consumers

The upload of work and social life onto the web has not only disrupted consumer behaviors; entire new markets and customer desires that were unimaginable just a few months ago are already cropping up. In order to meet these new needs and navigate unexpected use surges, brands should prioritize collaboration, both among their peers in the industry, and—perhaps more importantly—with consumers. 

It is clear that there is acute pressure for tech companies to act. The Google-Apple contact-tracing software announced early this month is a powerful example of two unlikely brands collaborating to develop solutions to pressing consumer needs. By working with a major competitor, both brands were able to express altruism, care for their customers above acclaim, and innovate new technology. And, in a move that further underscores the desire for protective measures, the Google and Apple project announced that it was beefing up its privacy protection by retiring a feature that while efficacious, opened people up to a very niche type of attack.

There is, however, an even more fundamental way in which brands can be collaborative: through deep partnerships with the consumers themselves. The decision to be a part of transforming a dangerously archaic data culture will become increasingly important as we are likely to enter another wave of invention. 

“Entrepreneurs are going to have an incredible opportunity over the next fifteen, eighteen months like we haven’t seen in decades,” Arthur Brooks echoed in a recent interview with Long Dash.

Important organizations in education and fundraising, for example, are currently having to deal with platforms and technologies that are ill-suited for their needs as the world goes through a prolonged crisis. And while people have been quick to adapt, it is clear that there is a growing market for products that make people feel less like they are choosing between the privacy of their children and continuing education, for example, or adding an app with recent struggles with privacy, like Zoom, to an already delicate and difficult process such as fundraising. 

An example of a more collaborative brand approach which engages and empowers users is 8×8’s Jitsi, a video conferencing platform that is growing exponentially due in part to the work-from-home shift, as well as Zoom’s troubles. Its open-source software not only guarantees that it is secure and impossible for even Jitsi to access your data by letting users run Jitsi on their own servers, but the platform is also open to customization, allowing for fixes by users themselves—vital for quick innovation and problem-solving during a crisis.

Entrepreneurs are going to have an incredible opportunity over the next fifteen, eighteen months like we haven’t seen in decades.

Such practices and policies also address a growing privacy-concerned audience who have switched to messaging services such as Signal for its end-to-end encryption and open-source model. To that end, 8×8 is also rolling out end-to-end encryption in order to differentiate itself in the market and meet consumers’ needs for security. 

As this moment continues to elevate new or inventive platforms and products, it is a reminder that collaboration with consumers is central to innovating in times of crisis. Brands should not seek to be genius problem-solvers, but instead remain humble collaborators with their consumers and one another. Brands that not only innovate to meet needs, but do so in partnership with other brands and consumers will be better positioned to create products and services that last beyond the pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, this style of innovation shows consumers that brands are invested in a shared destiny between themselves and society, which can help to repair the damage done by the techlash and foster a more positive relationship between brands and consumers. 

The need for brands to fully address data privacy and security is long overdue. The current crisis only draws more attention to these data privacy and security concerns, as people are encouraged to share ever more intimate details online just to stay connected or employed. 

The current environment, one in which the average American consumer either feels distrustful of technology brands or feels uninformed about data collection, is unsustainable. Brands can take steps now to begin refocusing the conversation around tech, data, and how they are channeling it for good. They can support a robust understanding of data and privacy in America, in a time where the global space is also struggling, by offering comprehensive consent procedures, in addition to more transparent and user-friendly products and communications. While a handful of brands continue to define the vanguard of data policy through more collaborative infrastructures, the field is open for any brand who interacts with their users through technology—which, today, is virtually everyone. 

This is a moment in which tech companies can step up and strengthen society by embracing and addressing people’s concerns with enthusiasm and candor. The way forward is through effective and open collaboration and communication with the people they are trying to serve.

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