#CES2021: Raising the Bar on Privacy and Trust Online in 2021

Big tech companies need to “raise the bar” on enhancing privacy and trust in their services in 2021. This was the message from a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2021, which included representatives from Google, Twitter and Amazon.

This need for greater transparency has emerged as a result of the growing reliance on digital technology to conduct everyday life since the start of the COVID-19 crisis last year. This includes for work purposes and to be able to stay in touch with friends and family, trends that are set to stay in place in the future, at least to some degree. Anne Toth, director of Alexa Trust-Amazon, explained: “We’re seeing more and more cases where people are using our product for very important interactions…those kind of use cases raises the bar on how to be transparent on the privacy controls and the trustworthiness of the product.”

While privacy online has been a major issue for a number of years, the events of 2020 have really brought it to the fore. Keith Enright, chief privacy officer at Google, commented: “Users are feeling more nervous than they have in the past; they’re relying on technology more than they have in the past to live their lives and to do the things that are important to them.”

Tech companies therefore have a duty to help users feel safe online. As well as transparent privacy controls and data protection rules, Enright added it’s also vital to “work across industry and with regulators and others to identify opportunities where we can meaningfully improve the privacy and security that governs users’ behavior online.”

Additionally, the ways in which artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools collect and share user data must be clearly displayed. Damien Kieranchief privacy officer at Twitter, said: “As those technologies become more ubiquitous to everything that we’re using and doing online, I think transparency in that space is going to be incredibly important.”

Privacy-related events and updates last year are also likely to have big implications for consumer tech firms going forward. This includes the development of new privacy laws in countries like the US, following the implementation of the GDPR in Europe, which will need to be navigated. Another significant event last year was the ruling that the US-EU privacy shield mechanism for data transfers was unlawful.

Kieran highlighted how such trends offer the potential for greater “balkanization” of the internet, where data and privacy are managed differently across regions. He commented: “There is the potential for a damaging impact, both to industry and to trust for consumers in terms of how these products and services work every day.” He added that helping users understand these changes is currently a major focus of Twitter.

The panellists also expressed a wish for a US Federal privacy law to be enacted over the next couple of years to help address this issue, particularly with the various US state laws now creating a “patchwork” of privacy legislation.

Looking towards the incoming Biden administration, Enright said that Google is looking for “strong consistent protections for individual rights, uniformity of controls, as its useful if users have a consistent experience when they’re interacting with online services wherever they are in the world.”

In terms of actions by tech firms themselves, Toth added that she expects there to be a continuous progression of privacy protocols, noting that at Alexa, “every product released is coupled with a privacy feature release.”

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