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Source: New Zealand Privacy Commissioner – Blog

Successful responses to the coronavirus pandemic globally have invariably involved a high degree of compliance from the public. The extent to which people ‘follow the rules’ has determined the speed and effectiveness of governments’ responses to outbreaks as and when they occur.

Research has found a dramatic increase in people’s trust in government in Australia and New Zealand as a result of the of the pandemic. According to a representative survey conducted by Australian and New Zealand academics a total of 80 percent (Australia) and 83 percent (New Zealand) of respondents agreed that government was generally trustworthy. In a previous survey conducted in 2009, it was found that 49 percent (Australia) and 53 percent (New Zealand) felt the government was generally trustworthy.

Contrast that with other countries such as France. According to data compiled by Statista’s Research department on 26 April 2021, only 35 percent of citizens trusted that the government can deal effectively with COVID-19 and only 42 percent of respondents agreed that the government can be trusted to carry out the vaccination campaign against COVID-19.

According to research conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori, 57 percent of Britons do not trust the government to control the spread of COVID-19. The finding was based on interviews with UK residents aged 16-75 carried out online between 20 and 24 November. According to Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London: “Trust in authority is key to maintaining compliance with the unprecedented restrictions that the public are being asked to live with and building a sense of collective responsibility”.

This raises questions about public compliance with government strictures and their buy-in to technological solutions like COVID tracer apps which data suggests could be crucial in curbing the virus. It would be fair to say that both New Zealand’s and Australia’s successes thus far in combatting the virus have been as a result of public compliance based on trust built up by good leadership.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that part of this is dependent on governments’ approach to privacy, particularly in relation to COVID tracing apps around the world. Epidemiological projections show that at least 60 percent proportion of a population is required to use a tracing app for it to be effective. This means mass public adoption.

In an article published by The Lancet Digital Health the authors stated:, “Public trust in the use of these applications is paramount because widespread adoption of these technologies is needed to be effective in curbing viral transmission. Moreover, tracing applications raise the spectre of generalised state surveillance in the face of the pandemic, with potentially devastating consequences if democratic societies learn to accept such an intrusion on civil liberties. Therefore, to counteract both negative perceptions and genuine threats, a privacy-protecting approach must be central in the development of such a contact tracing application.”

Approximately 2.8 million New Zealanders are registered with the app. In England and Wales, out of a population of 60 million (approx.) 20.9  million (approx.) people had downloaded the UK COVID Tracer App as at Christmas 2020. Downloads of TousAntiCovid (the French tracing app surpassed just 10 million downloads as at 1 December 2020. The first release of the app (then called StopCovid) attracted criticism from prominent academics including Prof Max van Kleek, Associate Professor of Human-Computer Interaction with the Department of Computer Science, at the University of Oxford.

StopCovid was not built upon the decentralised Google and Apple protocol which keeps data on people’s phones. Rather the app uploads data onto a government run centralised server. Prof van Kleek stated: “It does preserve privacy between users but not between the user and the government”. He added that “it’s a misnomer to call it a privacy-preserving protocol”. Note that the UK app opted for a similar centralised model but in a u-turn late last year opted for Apple and Google’s technology which favours a decentralised approach.

In New Zealand, we have benefitted from high trust in government and good executive communication leading to increased downloads of the NZ COVID Tracer App. But engendering this feeling of trust has involved assuring New Zealanders that the app doesn’t have to be ‘creepy’. Here at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, we have supported the development of privacy-friendly solutions from the Government, scrutinised agencies’ approaches in terms of privacy, and have played an important role in helping to build trust in the COVID Tracer App. For instance, OPC was consulted and worked closely with the Ministry of Health in developing NZ’s COVID Tracer app. After consultation, the Commissioner was able to assure New Zealanders that the app was created using Privacy by Design principles which put privacy at the foundation of the process.

This raises the question of what the role of privacy experts is around the world in relation to the pandemic. There’s no doubt that this pandemic has raised major privacy concerns for us all and it may redefine the way we approach privacy going forward – especially given that this might not be last pandemic we see. The approach governments take in responding to the pandemic must therefore be privacy enhancing. Privacy experts have an important part to play in ensuring that public and private agencies build privacy into their processes and products. It helps gain the public’s trust and achieve a greater level of voluntary compliance.

Many of us will recall Aesop’s fable of the Wind and the Sun. An abridged version goes something like this: The Wind and the Sun were arguing with one another as to who was stronger. The Wind spotted a man walking up a hill with his cloak wrapped tightly around him. The Wind challenged the Sun – whoever can remove the man’s cloak first is the stronger of the two. The Wind blew as hard as it could, but the harder it blew, the tighter the man clutched onto his cloak. But the Sun shone on the man. He removed his cloak and sat under the shade of a tree to cool off.

Think of this as two different approaches to public compliance. The Wind represents compulsion, which is not the favoured approach, while the Sun signifies the power of persuasion. The pandemic has brought to light how governments’ respect for privacy is a crucial facet of winning public trust and confidence.

This article was first published in the 31 March 2021 issue of NZ Doctor.

Image credit: France’s TousAntiCovid app.