Overcome Privacy Shaming During and After Pandemic

COVID-19 is reshaping the privacy landscape and calibrating priorities, but how long will it last?

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

June 9, 2020

6 Min Read
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From unprecedented demands for personal data, to new public-private data sharing alliances, responses to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have quickly elevated community health over data privacy. But the question remains: Will these priorities shift enterprise and consumer privacy practices moving forward, or will privacy shaming -- the practice of discouraging personal data collection, use or sharing via shaming -- prevail?

Many tech companies have recently announced unprecedented, collaborative initiatives to help halt the spread of the coronavirus by harnessing the power of community data collection and location tracking. And the accelerated demand for data to fuel related initiatives and help prevent future outbreaks will only increase.

Enterprises worldwide are recognizing the value of data and analytics, including predictive analytics, as part of their pandemic response and recovery.  As business returns to the new normal, enterprises will continue to build a data-driven enterprise, having seen the power of data and analytics to drive better decision-making, cost savings and net new revenue. This will also enable meeting the rapidly growing interest and demand for personalized products and services.

But privacy shaming gets in the way of the very personal data collection and sharing programs required for personalization to be successful.

Data collection and sharing during COVID-19

Collecting relevant data, particularly at a global level, is complicated. However, the onset of COVID-19 has expanded data collection and sharing across unlikely partners, providing a rare opportunity for enterprises to reassess information privacy values and strategy while the topic of personal data use is top of mind.

Presently, there is a focus on geolocation tracking and aggregated data use to combat the virus, which sheds light into how data sharing and privacy is undergoing a temporary, short-term change. Individuals appear more willing to provide third parties with their data to do their part.

As one example, Stanford Medicine rolled out a voluntary National Daily Health Survey for COVID-19 to learn and predict which geographical areas will be most impacted by coronavirus based on how respondents are feeling. The portal is “currently experiencing a high volume of survey responses,” illustrating how individuals’ commitment to help save lives could be currently outweighing any hesitation around personal data sharing.

At the same time, IT leaders cannot dismiss the possibility that the currently aligned incentives for universal data sharing will be short-lived: Once the crisis subsides, consumers may be less willing to share data. The question becomes: What should companies be doing now to capture these new but time-bound opportunities to rebrand privacy and data sharing to drive consumer buy-in and enterprise data use? And how can companies accomplish this given the inconsistent behavior of individuals around privacy, also known as the privacy paradox?

Gartner’s position is that business leaders must overcome privacy shaming by resetting the balance between data protection and business value resiliency.

The privacy paradox explained

Individuals care about privacy, until they don’t.

CIOs and data and analytics leaders have always been challenged by the “privacy paradox” in which end-users claim to be very concerned about their privacy, but under certain circumstances will do very little to protect it. This renders ends users’ decisions to provide personal data unpredictable, oftentimes based on the specific context or use, or even, temporary emotional response.

Data sharing requests and associated stakeholder conversations often end up plagued by fear of these “unknowns.” Along with privacy shaming and the persistent misperception that data protection laws prohibit leveraging personal data for commercial use, this results in an overly risk-averse posture, irrational suboptimal outcomes, discouragement of individual-level data use, and lost opportunities to increase efficiency, drive revenue growth, and impact social good.

Current data privacy norms have been forged with a focus on privacy infractions and data misuse by companies that make headlines in press, which in turn magnifies the risks and misperceptions of data sharing. This negativity forces many to overlook the use of data collection as an opportunity, especially during crisis situations. At the individual level, many people want to actively share their data to help solve community issues (i.e., Stanford’s Daily Health Survey). And they want personalized interactions from the commercial market.

Companies, too, are leaving opportunities behind if they do not realize the serious repercussions of not collecting and sharing data. In the wake of COVID-19, the public’s views on privacy might expand from a focus on personal privacy to a more community-oriented approach, perhaps resolving the privacy paradox altogether.

Regardless, one thing is certain: Limiting data sharing weakens data and analytics strategy, resulting in poor performance and missed opportunities. Business leaders, including chief data officers (CDOs), must actively promote a culture of trust in data sharing.  

Enable smart data sharing beyond pandemic

Crises elevate the demand for data while increasing the risk of data misuse. Data and analytics leaders can overcome the inherent reluctance around data sharing by developing trusted internal and external data sharing programs. One of the ways to do this is to combat privacy shaming.

The hype around third parties encroaching on individual data protection is oftentimes played out through that emotional tactic of privacy shaming to deter and even stop data sharing. Often this leads to a one-size-fits-all mentality that data sharing is bad.

Data and analytics leaders must overcome this reluctance by aligning privacy practices with business value resiliency, while maximizing societal benefit. Champion a new culture around data sharing that illustrates how applying privacy awareness to decisions involving personal data sharing creates value. Change the emotional response of privacy shaming to one that is grounded in a proper understanding of organizational data protection requirements and policies.

Armed with such knowledge, enterprise leaders will be able to better communicate what privacy is and is not. More importantly, they’ll be better able to convey the need to balance personal data rights with the freedom to conduct business and be innovative to solve complex challenges like coronavirus.

The future of data privacy in a post-coronavirus world might give impetus to businesses to develop new data collection technology and keep people safe, leading to a more communal definition of privacy, rather than an individualistic one. Both enterprises and individuals may shift their perspectives around data sharing because of the mutual value it provides, especially when individuals desire to contribute personal data for a commercial or social purpose.

The productive path forward is to make sure future crises do not become a matter of privacy versus progress. Positioning the use of individual data use to improve health outcomes, improve public safety and enable scientific advancement is possible by shifting the focus to transparency and ethical data collection in the long run. Carrying forward this balanced privacy mindset is integral in enabling consumers and enterprises alike to come out stronger post-pandemic. 


Lydia Clougherty Jones is a Research Director in the Gartner Data and Analytics Group. She covers data value creation and data and analytics strategy. She also focuses on data sharing, data monetization, data ethics, privacy as business strategy, data for good, and blockchain smart contracts.

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