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The Privacy Advisor | Technology, data, trust play key role in COVID-19 response Related reading: EU grappling with potential one-stop shop reform




As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded over the past year, Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Julie Brill said there has been an unparalleled digital transformation.

The company’s collaboration platforms, like Microsoft Teams, saw “enormous growth” of 160% to 170%, Brill said, as those who could shifted to working online.

“What that meant was we had technology much more in our lives, in terms of how we were working, how we were socializing, how we were engaging with our communities and with our friends and families. What that meant was because there was much more technology involved, there was much more data involved, and because there was more data involved, people started thinking about privacy,” Brill said. “What we’re seeing now is that almost 70% of consumers say they are concerned about how their data is collected in (applications) and various new services they are using. They are thinking about it.”

Brill joined Pfizer Chief Privacy Officer and IAPP Board of Directors Member Patrice Ettinger, CIPP/US, during the IAPP Global Privacy Summit Online 2021 panel “The Recovery Phase: The Role of Tech and Impact of COVID-19 on Privacy” discussing the importance of technology, data and trust as pandemic recovery continues.

The pandemic has created a new awareness of the need for large amounts of high-quality data to conduct research that can lead to impactful breakthroughs, Ettinger said. Past, present and future data on COVID-19 and its spread has been needed to understand the virus, new ways of infections and new variants, she said. The need for collaboration between government, private industry, academia and across borders has also been recognized as key in combatting the virus, she said.

“So when you bring these things together, what I see is this incredible catalyst for discussion about some really important issues about using health data to innovate,” Ettinger said. “In living rooms, we’re having discussions on this. The more stakeholders, the better the solutions can be.”

Whether it’s implementing a vaccine passport program, contact tracing or understanding best practices for reopening the economy, schools and offices, data will be critical, as will building in privacy protections, Brill said.

“We need to get comfortable understanding that aggregated, anonymized information is going to be deeply important to understanding patterns and how we can be successful in managing this disease in the coming years,” she said.

The U.S. has room for improvement when it comes to sharing data, she said, and giving companies and governments the guidance they need to understand when data can be shared and when it cannot.

“I think the United States was really caught on its back heels in this crisis because of the lack of guardrails,” she said. “This kind of data is super important, this kind of research about human interaction and human behavior, and what works and doesn’t work. We need better guardrails so that we can understand what’s happening, what’s working and how we give better guidance to all the individuals who need that kind of guidance.”

The “explosion” of data protection laws around the globe, including numerous U.S. states seeking a comprehensive law, highlights that “people want a privacy law,” Brill said.

“People want their data to be used, but they want it to be used in a safe and trusted manner and that’s why they want to have privacy laws,” she said. “What we’re talking about is ensuring that you have transparency, ensuring you have user control, ensuring you have company accountability, so privacy does not rest entirely on consumers’ backs and that you have some kind of an enforcement mechanism. With those four pillars, we will be doing a tremendous amount in the United States to drive forward our trust in technology because we’ll have clear guardrails that companies will have to follow.”

Both Brill and Ettinger said trust in technology and the use of data will be key as responses as the pandemic continues, and both are optimistic that can be achieved in creating technologies that will help society move forward. They also said addressing racial, social and economic inequalities is important and can be done through the proper use of data and trust.

“Trust in technology happens when you have companies and states and other entities that are really transparent about what is happening, give consumers, users and patients choices, and abide by clear principles, or — if we are so lucky — laws,” Brill said. “We do need to ensure that people understand what happens to their data in the context of technology and that they trust technology. If you lose trust, you’ve lost everything. So, it’s super important to figure out how we build those systems that will bolster the innovation to demonstrate the systems have earned trust and will continue to earn trust every day.”

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