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Tech can fight COVID-19 without misusing citizens' data

Governments must be less nationalistic and entrepreneurs more careful

| Singapore
Commuters wear face masks during morning rush hour traffic in Taipei on Apr. 8: Taiwan has won plaudits for their use of technology.   © Reuters

Khailee Ng is a managing partner of 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that has invested in 2,400 companies in 75 countries. He has led more than 180 investments in Southeast Asian tech startups.

Two of the countries which have best contained COVID-19 so far, Singapore and Taiwan, have won plaudits for their use of technology.

The Singaporean government's location and contact tracing app, TraceTogether, is a case study in the battle against coronavirus. According to the Straits Times, nearly 20% of the country's population are using the app. The developer has even released the code for the app for other countries to emulate. The app's success is built on citizens' willingness to trust the government with their real-time location data.

Taiwan, on the other hand, bypassed the need for an app and citizen willingness altogether. It is tracking 55,000 quarantined individuals through a telco-enabled electronic fence. A quarantined individual whose phone was switched off had government officials show up at his home.

But if we are all to hand over our data to governments and tech companies, ostensibly for the global good, then every part of the transaction from policymakers and entrepreneurs to consumers needs to rethink its role in keeping data safe.

Policymakers must start to take less nationalistic approaches to companies which own data. Instead of starting with "X's shareholder is from this country, therefore we must be suspicious," start with the company's data governance structures and protocols, regardless of where it is from.

This means that as well as taking to task national champions, like the U.S. has criticized Facebook for its data protection and privacy controls, governments must evaluate local and foreign companies in the same light.

Governments should set up guidelines and certification, similar to the fair-trade scheme which stands for better trading conditions, for data-governance businesses, so consumers know which ones are trustworthy. Punishing companies without helping to prevent breaches will only make it easier for businesses in more relaxed countries to get ahead, with the net effect of creating more consumer risk.

Investors may want to think more about committing their money to trustworthy apps rather than just popular ones, emphasizing how they can retain consumers through ironclad data protection. While Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger continue to be market leaders, there has been room for Telegram, Signal and no doubt more to come, especially in a locked-down world of daily video calls.

Consumers are not exempt from responsibility. If you care about your data, history is trending against you. Today, an unprecedented amount of consumer data is being collected and used. What is more, countries with more willing citizens or less stringent regulation are racing ahead in big data and artificial intelligence, which will create a technological and economic lead too.

You will need to make honest choices, and many of them are trade-offs. Go online or read a book? Contain COVID-19 or maintain absolute privacy?

Contact tracing app TraceTogether is seen on a mobile phone: contain COVID-19 or maintain absolute privacy?   © Reuters

Entrepreneurs can do what is right from the start. Any company, regardless of share ownership, should set up simpler data privacy policies that users can understand; create an internal governance framework that prevents errant staff members from affecting your data policy; and ask your auditors to extend their work to data privacy.

This will help your company prevent data leaks and, if the worst does happen, be in a position of strength by showing you did all you could to avoid it.

Finally, technologists should build robust protocols for data encryption, permissions and fair use. In the same way we agreed on fundamental protocols for the internet's domain names and information, extending that thinking to global data management is a smart next step in setting global standards for everyone's sake.

To battle pandemics, terrorism and other threats, information drawn from data is a great ally. Governments will ask citizens to provide it, as in Singapore, or will obtain it anyway, as in Taiwan. Author Yuval Noah Harari has recently suggested that governments should collaborate to share data to tackle the challenges of our time, while whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to warn otherwise.

Fighting COVID-19 and resuscitating our economies after it will need us to leverage data. We need the data protection tool kit to match.

All views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of 500 Startups.

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