The entire Smart Nation edifice in Singapore is built on the presumption that residents will access information and government services though their personal devices at any time of the day and from anywhere.

This convenience and empowerment comes at a cost. For better and more personalised services, users need to share increasingly more personal data with service providers. And they are doing so willing and, sometimes, even inadvertently.

It boils down to a choice between privacy and access to better services.

Personal devices

It often makes sense to take a step back and think about the amount of technology we use unconsciously in our daily lives, whether it’s for work or play.

There are some startling statistics around for those who care for such stuff. The average person spends around four hours a day on their mobile devices. We order food using the device, we use it as a map-cum-GPS when we are driving or as a medium to access rideshare apps. Most of our media consumption is on the screen that we carry around with us and we communicate with other people, both professional as well as personal via mobile phones.

There’s even a study which says 88 percent of people using smartphones running on the Android operating system (OS) and 76 percent of Apple’s iPhone users take their phones with them to the bathroom.

While one can question whether smartphones help people in their daily ablutions and if Android does a better job than Apple, it is unquestionable that users are attached to their mobile devices because they are so useful in multiple ways.

Mobile devices are empowering millions, especially in developing countries where many are accessing the Internet for the first time through a handheld device. Even in countries that are technologically mature, such as Singapore, they are fantastic enablers, providing access to services and information.

Privacy vs convenience

Take the case of Google’s popular Google Assistant app which is embedded in all Android phones. In its latest version of the app Google has done some amazing work on its artificial intelligence (AI) enabled Assistant. At its recent developer conference, the company announced that it has been able to compress the algorithmic models of the Assistant program so that it can run on 500 megabytes of data as opposed to the previous 100 gigabytes. This means the Assistant can now sit inside the phone’s storage and can operate even if there is bad connectivity.

The new Assistant offers a slew of new services and intuitive abilities that ensures that a user can virtually talk to the phone and get things done. However, all these new features will be possible only if users opt to share more personal data so that the Assistant can customise itself. Google assures that it would not share the data and that there would be an option to opt out as well. But the data will add to its Knowledge Graph, which in turn will help the company to boost its business. In a way this makes sense, because the company spent an enormous amount of money to develop the Assistant and it needs to recoup its costs as otherwise future developments will not happen.

Google is being used here as a proxy for the technology industry. Other companies such as Amazon and Microsoft also have personal assistants and they are doing amazing work.
The conclusion is the same: If you want your personal Jarvis like Iron Man, you have to share more data. And that seems fare trade-off for a vast majority of people.

Dichotomy

The interesting point here is that while people are sharing personal data to get better services, they are also clamouring for legislation which provides a higher degree of data privacy. This has led to the enactment of laws such as Singapore’s PDPA (personal data protection act) and Europe’s GDPR (general data protection regulation).

The conundrum here is that, generally people are resentful of sharing personal data with government agencies and, in many cases do so because they have no choice. At the same time they are willing share information online because of the very tangible benefits that accrue immediately.

Helmut Reisinger, CEO of France-based Orange Business Services, narrated an interesting anecdote to me. Some years ago there was a big political debate about the information to be stored in the Austrian social security card. There were protests as many did not want to put health data on the card as it was “private data”, he said.

Some of this anger among protesters was rather irrational. Information of, say, blood group type linked to the card could save lives in case of an accident. The problem is the benefit from such information sharing is not tangible and immediate since no one expects to be involved in an accident. Hence very few understand its importance.

Contrast this with healthcare apps linked with smart bands. When setting up their devices, users click on a few boxes, give their consent and they are on their way. These apps track vital health parameters round-the-clock and store the data in servers, many of which are located in far off places. While it may be argued that the data is not medical grade, research has shown that the sheer amount of data that’s collected is sufficient for big data analytics to develop a health profile which is more up-to-date and accurate than the one held by personal physicians who rely on annual or bi-annual health check-ups of their patients. This data is more valuable than the knowledge of blood group type and yet there is no protest with regards to the availability of such data online.

No easy solutions

There are no easy solutions to this problem and the approach has to be a combination of trial and error and education. There is a need to educate people that not all data are born equal and while some can be shared for benefits, others need to be well-guarded and shared only in the rarest of circumstance.

Governments also need to fine tune legislation and put in an effort to ensure that multilateral cooperation exists in framing laws as service providers are global in nature and jurisdictionally they may be outside the borders of countries where they are providing services.

Being a multi-country effort, GDPR is a good role model to develop such legislation. As of now it is considered the gold standard but it also has its own quirks. Under GDPR, internet service providers in Europe have a restriction on using even anonymised data of its customers to provide analytics services to companies. And so what do they do? They buy data, about their own customers, from OTT (over the top) service providers that ride on their network, because the latter can get customers to click “I accept” for the convenience of the service offered.

As Singapore’s GovTech Minister has noted, trust is paramount to the success of the Smart Nation vision. “If we lose that, everything else is not going to go very well. We won’t get very far in this Smart Nation vision,” he told GovInsider.

It will take some time but, hopefully, governments will be able to strike a fine balance between convenience and security in today’s digital economy.

Amit Roy Choudhury, a media consultant and journalist, writes about technology for GovInsider.

Image by Dickson Phua – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0