COVIDSafe app debate reminds us that there are no free passes in privacy, even when the stakes are high

25 May 2020

Not even fear of the novel coronavirus is enough for many consumers to set aside their concerns over privacy as the Commonwealth government discovered with the launch of its COVIDSafe app.

While downloads of the app are steadily growing and have reached 5.5 million as of the time of writing, the app also set off a fierce debate online.

Those concerns have been raided by privacy advocates who worry that the app represents overreach on the part of the government, as well as critics of the government generally, who simply do not believe it will honor its commitments to delete the data when the crisis has passed.

To ease concerns the government has written protections into legislation, however, the truth is there are guarantees it cannot make - such as promising the US government won’t simply hoover up all the data from AWS as it is legally entitled to do.

According to Mike Zeederberg, managing director at Zuni, “COVIDSafe has re-ignited consumer's interest and concern around what type of personal data they give away, and who they give it to.”

This being the age of social media, it has also fuelled a wide range of conspiracy theories around digital tracking and how the government will use the app to "spy" on everyone, he says.

This highlights how little consumers really understand about what data is and isn't already tracked by apps, and what can and can't be done by the government already, using the Data Retention Act of 2015.

Because of the heightened awareness of data collection and use from consumers, marketers need to be clearer than ever how they are using people's data, and where they fall on the spectrum of "Clever vs Creepy" in the eyes of their customers, based on their use of data says Zeederberg.

Customers perceive a reasonably clear difference between where businesses and marketers are using their data for the benefit of the business. An example of that would be Facebook selling consumer data to advertisers as opposed to where their data is used for their own benefit such as recommendation on Amazon or Spotify.

But does this new normal mean marketers need to change their strategy in regards to privacy?

“Marketers have a real opportunity to work out how they can use the data they hold for mutual benefit with their customers, and by doing so, be seen as good custodians and utilisers of data and private information,” he says.

“The more businesses can be seen to be providing utility and useful information through their use of data, rather than just using it to sell stuff, the more likely consumers will be to trust businesses to keep their data private.”


Zeederberg says he is surprised at the lack of engagement and discussion within the marketing world around the Consumer Data Right which underpins the emerging open banking regime in Australia, and which passed into law last August.

“This is starting to roll out based on the legislation and time table announced last year. The discussion seems to be largely happening in the tech and banking communities, but the wider implications and opportunities are not seeming to be discussed in the broader marketing context, other than around regulatory compliance.”

Whilst the rollout is slow, and initially only impacts the banking and financial services sector, the concept that at a fundamental level, consumers, not businesses, own any data that they generate, and have the right to manage that data directly, is something marketers should consider in their data and privacy strategy moving forward.

“It represents both a challenge - providing customers with easy access and easy portability of their data, and potentially making it much easier for customers to churn, as well as an opportunity for growth and innovation, through the development of additional data orientated services that make use of data previously not easily accessed,” says Zeederberg.

Global debate

The debate in Australia over privacy echoes similar discussions all around the world. Data privacy concerns have already led to the significant new regulation in markets like the US with the emergence of legislation like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and even more influentially, the European GDPR regime.

Indeed, research by the DMA reveals the extent to which GDPR has reframed the debate.

In a report entitled Data Privacy, an Industry Perspective 2019, the authors reveal that GDPR has improved the privacy outlook with almost half of those they surveyed saying they believe consumer trust in the handling of their data has been improved, and 46% say trust in brands and marketing overall has been boosted.

However, the more embedded GDPR becomes in the community, the less confident marketers are that they really grasp the legislation.

According to the report, “There is a marked increase in anxiety among respondents about the depth of their own knowledge of the GDPR. In September 2018, 73% of those surveyed claimed they had a good understanding of the changes the law would bring; now, that figure has almost halved to 38%.”

For further reading, read the report.

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