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Exclusive: AMEinfo interviews ZOHO, and joins the debate on data privacy

Apple has given iOS users the ability to opt out from having their data tracked. This brought data privacy back to the forefront. AMEinfo asked an expert about what this is all about

We are feeling the impact of technology on the fabric of our lives on very intimate levels The problem is the data they are using is collected without our clear consent. Data at a scale becomes a massively powerful tool to identify and predict patterns and draw important conclusions

Apple’s latest iPhone update, iOS 14.5, brings with it an important and controversial new feature: App Tracking Transparency. After much delay since it was announced in June 2020, it’s now live.   

Before iOS 14.5, developers could use a host of tools to track user data from within an app. Advertisers could then use it in conjunction with similar data from around the rest of the web to broadly identify information about a user and use that profile to better target them with advertisements.

Every single company that wants to track users and their data across different apps and websites now has to ask permission first and iOS users can simply opt out.

To probe this further, AMEinfo held an interview with Ali Shabdar, Regional Director for MEA, ZOHO, a prominent business software solutions company.

We asked…

Why is it a concern now?

“There are a number of factors in play here. We often react to life’s developments and their side effects sometimes a bit too late. Climate change is becoming a real threat to our civilization, but we spent the good part of the past 50 years merely talking about it.

“When it comes to privacy of (business and personal) data, a few important things happened in the past 2 decades. With global internet adoption, the digitization of our lives, and not just businesses, we are feeling the impact of technology on the fabric of our lives, on very intimate levels.  

“Also, there are rules and regulations becoming more prominent now, such as GDPR, the first law that defined specific limits on using customers’ personal data and privacy introducing hefty fines around breaching it, with some room for interpretation. In the MENA region, Saudi, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt have come up with their own regulations on this.

“Last but not least, the amount of data that big tech started collecting, and what came out of it is scary.

On the face of it, businesses collect and analyze customer data to promote and sell products to consumers. But a byproduct of such data mining, especially coupled with the ever-growing power of predictive AI and Machine Learning, could have impacted the decision-making power of the society impacting geopolitical equations and societal trends.

“Using social networks, the data they collect about us allows companies to know us more than we know ourselves, our parents, or even spouses. It is becoming easier to understand and predict human behavior, and possibly persuade communities as a whole in order to achieve business objectives. This gives tech companies, that are often privately held and operate for profit, power beyond what is reasonable.”

What is reasonable and what isn’t?

“Companies are about making profits and are responsible towards the vested interests of their shareholders. Within the boundaries of the law, they will try to maximize their profits.

“When it comes to marketing products, they want to know you better and better to give you exactly what you need even if you don’t know you need (or want) that product. It’s called buying on impulse, knowing how and when to approach you with shiny offers.

“The problem is the data they are using is collected without our clear consent. When we hit the agree or consent button, we often do it without reading the fine print and what we actually give away in return.

“We like to think we are in charge of buying or not buying a particular product or service. But that data is stored somewhere without my consent and that has immense potential to be misused either by the people who store it or others who can gain access to it via data sales, multiple times over or through malicious means.

“Privacy is a core quality of human life. We do not want it to be compromised. So, it is onto the tech companies that are custodians of our private data to protect it.”

Will android be in step with Apple’s privacy opt-out?

“With Android, it’s much more fragmented. Some of it is managed by Google and then you have other third-party providers. There were polls and surveys on independent Android publications made that show over 85% of respondents wanted a similar mechanism as an iOS. But even if Google or other providers want to implement this, it will be harder. The majority of android users are not using the latest versions of iOS to start with, and globally there are more Android than iOS users, especially in Latin America and in our region. Between theory and reality, Android has a longer way towards implementing an all-encompassing privacy opt-out.”

But ads that track us do help us make purchase choices, no?

“What I gain is often not worth what I give up. Oftentimes, I am encouraged to purchase what I do not need. One hot topic in the CX is end-to-end personalization of experience. It is a good idea in principle, but still a work in progress. I don’t want to be duped into giving away my data just because I want a better shopping experience.

“We store our personal and professional information on our computers and on someone else’s servers, without being fully educated about the implications. As a species, we have been storing our information for 10s of thousands of years on cave walls, slates, and paper. But the amount, means, and access to it have been limited by design. At today’s rates of generating data, there are a lot of unknowns.”

Read: 5 Next-gen cyber threats targeting your privacy

Read: Gartner identifies top 10 data and analytics technology trends for 2021

How dangerous is the data out there?

“The amount of data in the world was estimated to be 44 zettabytes (21 zeros!) at the beginning of 2020 and growing at a staggering rate. Data at a scale becomes a massively powerful tool to identify and predict patterns and draw important conclusions.  Of course, undertaking large sets of data needs advanced hardware and software, which nowadays is available to almost everyone very cost-effectively.

“Imagine a company collecting millions of rows of data of their customers. In a more granular view, if a company has access to my shopping and social media behavior, plus my educational, professional, ethnic, and societal background, compared to patterns generated from thousands of other similar people, it’s not that hard to conclude if I am a happy person, or if I have mental health issues.  Can this be used to drive an agenda? It can. Maybe such data needs to stay in silos that cannot be interconnected, but then the great benefits of data will be undermined.

“There is also the issue of cybercrime and cyber theft, such as when large companies collect people’s medical information that suddenly is hacked and threatened to be exposed unless ransomware is paid. Maybe the intention behind data collection was for a good cause, perhaps to find a cure to a disease. But after a breach, such benefits are grossly undermined. We cannot stop our progress and growth and the only way to minimize or hopefully eliminate such threats is to be prepared on all fronts.”

How can we play a part?

“At Zoho, we have been doing that religiously for the past 25 years. Protection of customer data is one of the pillars of our business and a key to our success. We are fully compliant with all security and privacy regulations in the countries we operate, most of the time even before regulation comes into effect.

“We practice what we preach by being transparent and protective of our customers’ data that is hosted on tightly secure hardware and software. Implementing a full-stack approach where all the layers of hardware and software are made and owned by us tightens the grip even further. None of our software, not one single bit of data, is on someone else’s infrastructure, database, or data center.

“Second, we actively do our part in educating the market. There is both lots of misinformation and lack of it. We have regular educational programs and remind customers about the importance of data protection and privacy.”