Society needs to make more informed decisions on data protection as AI and mobile solutions proliferate, writes Nie Zhengjun in the South China Morning Post

Written by Nie Zhengjun, Chief Privacy Officer of Ant Group. Originally published in the South China Morning Post on April 25, 2019.

Each day, artificial intelligence and other innovative advanced technologies are bringing real benefits to our lives — whether it’s quicker and safer access to our mobile devices, chatbots that can predict customer service requests or medical devices that can diagnose ailments with greater precision.

Along with these developments comes a growing global demand for better oversight over how users’ information is collected, stored, and used to train and power these innovations. Heeding the call, data protection legislation is making headway in more countries and regions. For example, next month Europe will mark the first anniversary of the General Data Protection Regulation, while China will enter the second year of its Cyber Security Law a month after.

While the debates surrounding what constitutes an ideal solution continue to evolve, one thing is clear — responsible technology companies, partners and consumers need to come together to share knowledge to collectively arrive at better-informed decisions about data privacy policy and best practices.

There is a growing urgency for action on this front as AI-powered innovations increasingly transform how people around the world go about their daily lives. In China, for instance, technology developed by Alipay has helped millions of small business-owners obtain microloans to grow their businesses. Through their mobile phones, these entrepreneurs — ranging from shop-owners to street-side vendors — can apply for and receive approvals for loans in as little as three minutes.

We can expect ever broader adoption of such innovations due to the convenience and improvements that they bring. At the same time, as devices that collect and process our information become more integrated into our daily lives, companies need to implement stronger policies that ensure the security of customer data is treated with the utmost care.

Even companies with the most stringent and compliant data privacy and security policies will not be completely immune from data security breaches. With reports of security breaches and improper data collection continuing to give consumers anxiety, striking a balance between the risks and the benefits will also require a broader public dialogue that looks at the topic holistically.

Open discourse will bring new perspectives to the conversation, sourcing more creative solutions for organizations that will help them make better decisions about the data they collect. We can start by arming decision-makers with objective, well-researched information. One approach Alipay has taken to encourage public discourse on privacy in China and globally is to commission research by The Economist Intelligence Unit (the EIU) on the topic.

Some of the results from the report challenge common misconceptions, such as those describing a more relaxed attitude to privacy in countries like China. In fact, nearly all survey respondents who work for Chinese companies believe data privacy is important to good corporate governance, and even more so compared to respondents in other regions.

Other findings showed that executives generally believe people are willing to trade data privacy for improved services, with three out of four American executives agreeing with this sentiment, higher than the global average of about two in three. And overall, companies worldwide agree that cybersecurity concerns will be the biggest driver of stronger data-protection strategies, a reflection of the fears about future security breaches.

Also forming part of this important discourse, the Alibaba-formed think tank Luohan Academy this March gathered a group of privacy experts together, including economists and 2014 Nobel laureate Jean Tirole, University of California, Berkeley law professor James Dempsey, and the Asian Business Law Institute’s data privacy project lead Clarisse Girot, in Hangzhou.

Over the course of three days, these experts took part in extensive discussions, addressing topics such as how to better protect data without hampering innovation, the boundaries between ownership and use of data, regional policies and practices and the relationship between data security and consumer trust.

Participants also discussed the need for deeper academic research into privacy issues, as opposed to excessive reliance on hypothetical scenarios.

At Alipay, more than 1 billion users around the world now rely on us and our local e-wallet partners for services from mobile payments to a growing range of lifestyle services. To instill greater awareness of protecting the privacy of our users, we must focus on our core principles. That means always putting the interests of our users first and ensuring new products or features bring real value to our users.

Trust is what will enable us to build a successful digital society for the future, and ensuring strict compliance with regulations on user data and policies will be fundamental to that shift. There is still much that needs to be done to strengthen data protection practices around the world, and to get there, we are calling on all to join this crucial discussion that will profoundly impact the future of our industry.

For more stories and news about Alipay, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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Ant Group is a tech company dedicated to bringing inclusive finance to the world, through Alipay and its global partners.

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