Among the abundant sudden and unexpected changes of recent months, several revolutions have occurred related to our attitude towards technology. To avoid Covid-19 contagion, much of the work, commerce, culture or social life has become online, accelerating a transformation that had been going on for years gradually.
A less visible revolution, but with very profound implications, is that of attitudes towards the privacy of our personal data. Citizens accept that such sensitive data as doctors, our location, our social relationships and others can be used much more lightly than before. The health challenge justified it.
Suddenly, European citizens were ready for our states to have immediate access to data that would cause the envy of Agents of the Stasi or KGB. And many of us appreciate it, but we may not have been sufficiently aware of its implications.
Europeans and their data, before and after Covid
Within the European Tech Insights project of the Centre for the Government of Change at IE University, we annually survey citizens of several European countries to better understand how the change, particularly technological, that we experience affects people and their worldview.
When we conducted our survey in January 2020, 31% of participants were unwilling to share their personal data with anyone, even if that would improve their security or increase employment. Only 18% were in favour of sharing them relatively easily.
Respondents’ position was in line with the battles fought in Europe in recent years, especially with the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The norm became the world’s most restrictive model for what businesses and governments could do with citizens’ data.
But europeans were immediately aware of the importance of using individual data to curb contagion. To check the effects of the pandemic, we asked the same question again in April in countries then affected by the health crisis. From January to April, the percentage of those unwilling to use their data was reduced by 13 points of average in Europe, more than a third.
The use of data during the pandemic
In this period, administration applications have proliferated to obtain information about geolocation, user contacts or others through questions or passive data collection.
In South Korea, for example, the authorities know at all times whether someone who has been exposed to Covid-19 leaves his homefunding. Other users receive automatic notifications about whether their contacts have been diagnosed or exposed to the disease.
In Western countries, applications at the moment report only aggregated data. For example, the presence or concentration of users exposed by zones.
These invasive technological mechanisms, previously unimaginable, already in our April survey had significant support among the population: they had 67% supporters in Spain, 79% in Italy and China reached 92%.
Changes in attitudes are manifested very importantly in the questions we asked before and after the pandemic. In January, 53% of Europeans were unwilling to share their health data with technology companies without their explicit consent, even if that could be used to detect new diseases. In Spain or Italy, the countries most hit by the pandemic, when we asked the same question again in April, those who opposed sharing this data went from 56 to 45% in our country and from 52 to 39% in Italy.
What does the future hold?
One risk is that what appear to be exceptional measures, and thus accepted by the public, will become commonplace. That the widespread use of sensitive personal data becomes permanent and extends to other domains.
One example is antisocial behavior monitoring, accepted in China. The Chinese state continually watches from the online activity of its citizens to how respectful they are with traffic rules or if they put the music too loud on the bus. Everything is done for the sake of a more harmonious society, or the general interest.
While these arguments are easily justifiable in a crisis like the one we live in, the citizens ofensure that the implementation of these measures is not undesired.
Another important challenge is the difficulty in reconciling these attitudes with those that Europeans have towards large technology companies. In our study, a third of citizens – a majority in the case of Germans – think that these companies are bad for democracy. However, if its technologies are important in challenges like today, Europe will need its cooperation.
During the pandemic, we have seen examples in Europe of our dependence on large (predominantly American) technology companies. Countries such as Germany, Italy, Ireland and Austria have been forced to use the infrastructure and protocols of Apple and Google in their tracking applications. These companies have ultimate control of data, and integrate the application with device notification systems.
If Europeans want their data to be used extensively, they must reconcile themselves with the involvement of these companies or encourage the creation of European alternatives. In our study we see no sign of any of these options being demanded.
In any case, the results of European Tech Insights show a real change in the acceptance of the use of very sensitive data, bringing us ever closer to the levels of Asian countries. Managing this transformation will require reopening a public and calm debate about new attitudes to the conflict between the public interest and data privacy.
Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón, Professor, IE University and Oscar A. Jonsson, Academic Director, Center for the Government of Change, IE University
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.