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The battle to protect consumer privacy in Asia 

Published Mon, Jul 26, 2021 · 02:58 PM
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A more complex regulatory landscape has emerged in Asia in recent years as a direct result of more intense pace and volume of technological adoption in the new digital economy. Permanent consumer online habits, partly reinforced by the pandemic, are prompting companies to rely more heavily on digital tools to interact with their target demographics. The upside of this seamless ecosystem is universally acknowledged, but its dark underbelly has largely managed to evade the spotlight—until recently.  

In 2018, Internet users worldwide got a rare glimpse of what had being going on behind their seemingly harmless social media habits—large-scale personal data collection without knowledge or permission, violation of data privacy, and unlawful data-driven campaigns. Three years have passed since the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal, yet new stories of companies’ unethical or controversial use of consumer data continue to make headlines in 2021.   

Sweeping technological advancements are creating a sea of change in today’s cyber world, redefining connectivity and altering the rules of the game. The regulatory spotlight, therefore, needs to urgently expand to cover non-critical sectors—such as retail—to reflect the increasing focus on cyber resilience, protection of consumers and curbing unintended consequences of online activities, zeroing in on data privacy. 

The battle between consumer rights protection and brands’ questionable tactics

The data privacy landscape in Asia currently comprises many different data protection regimes, which vary in the level of regulatory requirements, data use restrictions, and sanctions. One common trend, however, is that all jurisdictions are seeking a tougher approach to data regulations, with the aim to develop more up-to-date, robust best practices. 

Singapore, for instance, recently raised the penalty for inadequate organisational efforts with regard to mandatory breach notification, which will take effect in February 1, 2022. The update also includes tighter rules on advertising and marketing tactics to introduce more spam control. This signals lawmakers’ growing attention to how consumer data is being handled in sectors such as retail, where non-critical personal data (as opposed to financial or health-related information) lies at the heart of individualised experiences and intimate brand engagements. 

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In the battle to win over the hearts and minds of consumers, brands are in a race to amass unprecedented volumes of consumer data to extract accurate information on targeted individuals, which will go toward informing a series of customised and optimised marketing campaigns. This strategy, while sound, carries the significant risk of data mishandling and other unethical practices that intrude and violate consumers’ privacy. 

Recently in the spotlight were several major consumer brands across fashion, automotive and home appliance, who were accused of using facial recognition technologies to track consumer behaviour in their physical stores, which prompted concerns around personal information and cybersecurity. In these cases, consumers were not aware that their biometric data were being collected, leaving them helpless and at risk of having this information exposed or stolen. 

Incidents like this highlights a worrying trend of organisations eagerly tapping data analytics without fully comprehending the ethical considerations such practices. At the same time, consumers are forced to become more aware of their personal data, and who they are willing to share it with. A trust-focus strategy that puts emphasis on privacy initiatives is essential for brands to help their customers overcome data-related concerns, paving the way for long-term, sustainable brand engagements. 

A data-driven approach that safeguards consumer’s data and privacy 

With the backdrop of organisations in Asia facing rapid changes to the regulatory scene, a recent poll revealed that more than four in ten compliance officers regarded this as the single greatest challenge to tackle in 2021. 

To address pertinent issues around consumer data privacy and protection, especially in today’s unprecedented digital exposure context, organisations from less or non-regulated sectors need to proactively adopt stringent protocols to reduce risk and fortify cyber resiliency. A good place to start is an end-to-end framework that protects identities, applications and data. This means ensuring that data across its entire life cycle -from point of entry, to rights in accessing information and finally where it is stored or in use, is adequately safeguarded. At the same time, the framework needs to be flexible enough to preserve brand value and boost customer engagement and trust, allowing the collected data to support business growth.  

All of these factors hinge on organisations’ ability to discover, classify, and analyse data based on a clear understanding of the data, thus enabling further actions such as protection, retention and disposal. There is also the added challenge of managing growing data. This underscores the importance of streamlining data processes and fortifying efforts to trace and protect consumer data wherever it resides.  

In the same vein, companies need to feature privacy policy prominently as they become cyber resilient, with the intention to build and maintain external trust. This includes efforts to increase transparency around what consumer data is collected, as well as how and why, underscoring the focus on respecting and protecting consumer rights. 

In the wake of the pandemic, which has allowed the world to become more inter-connected than ever before, the bar on data privacy needs to move to establish higher standards and obligations for managing personal information. We can expect industries that have historically been under less scrutiny, in particular, to ramp up efforts to meet new regulatory requirements, ensure fair markets, and protect their customers—the perfect recipe for sustainable business growth. 

The writer is president, Asia Pacific & Japan, at Micro Focus

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