Consumers in Dystopia, Governments in Utopia

For technologists and those on the sell side of the consumer equation, payments utopia is a world where biometrics recognizes faces linked to credit or debit cards, creating the ultimate frictionless payment.

The biometric payment wave began with Apple Pay, beginning with fingerprints. It continues to be a significant focus from the payments companies and card schemes, which see this as the way of the future.

Shared across government agencies, credit providers, and the property and transport industries, biometrics promises groundbreaking changes to the way people move through life and complete a multitude of daily tasks.

Biometrics, however, requires the provision and sharing of personal data and personal permissions. As several recent surveys in Australia reveals, a large number of consumers are yet to be convinced and won over by the new technology vision.

The Inconvenient Data Truth

The surveys reveal an inconvenient truth for the technology industry: that while they are marching ahead with remarkable breakthroughs which may be good for business and Government, individuals remain extremely wary and distrustful that giving up their personal details delivers sufficient control and benefit.

China's new social credit system has received significant publicity in Australia. While the intent may be to incentivize lawfulness and good citizenship, many Australians see the system as one of Orwellian social control, which is anathema in a democratic society. Where technologists might see utopia, many people see an insidious dystopia.

An Essential Poll conducted for Guardian Australia interviewed 1,075 Australians, 58% of whom said they were uncomfortable with Government providing other agencies with information for national security purposes, while 56% were against using facial recognition to restrict access to content not suitable to children.

This is in the context of a wrangle in the Australian Parliament, where a standing committee on intelligence and security told the Government it needs to rethink its plans for a national facial verification database for passports and drivers’ licenses.

While travelers enjoy rapid progress through the immigration queues at international airports with their biometric passports, this would appear to be the limit of what many people can currently tolerate.

With children, the Government is considering whether to use facial recognition to verify a users’ age before they can access pornography on the internet through a system called "the Capability."

This is a controversial proposal, which is part of the Department of Home Affair’s proposal to create a Facial Verification Service to be shared across Government to combat crime and identity theft.

More Unhappiness on Sharing Data

There is even more pushback to the idea of sharing data. The Essential poll also found that 76% of respondents were uncomfortable with commercial platforms selling their data, while 74% did not like the idea of the Government providing their data to the business.

The idea of using data to tailor offers to consumers is at the core of the new digital business proposition. Yet, a majority of Australian consumers are still not on board with the idea.

According to the survey, 66% of people were uncomfortable with the Government or commercial online platforms "offering products and services based on personal information and behavior."

The good news for business in all of this is that the most suspicious demographics are older people aged 55 and above, while those aged 18 to 34 were less likely to have problems with sharing data.

Nevertheless, the survey shows that Government and business have some way to go before they can persuade the majority of Australians to trade away their right to digital privacy.

Commenting on the poll results, the head of Essential Media, Peter Lewis, said the results reflected “increased public distrust at the very heart of the business strategies of big tech organizations.”

“They also show a breakdown of trust in the government to collect information in the public interest.”

You Are Too Late

Lewis went on to make another point: that in many cases, it is too late for people’s complaints, and they are basically objecting to permissions they have already given.

“What is confounding about these results is that the public is uncomfortable with the use of data in the precise ways they routinely consent to it being used,” he said.

This relates to other survey results, which shows that only 19% of users say they have thoroughly read and understood the terms and conditions of the websites they use, while 18% just accept the conditions without reading them.

From these results, several questions arise.

Firstly, have consumers been bullied and coerced by Government and business into going along with data conditions against their wishes, or with a grudging acceptance?

Might there come a time when there is a backlash from consumers who believe that their digital rights are being encroached on to an unacceptable point? If it comes to this point, what rights might they have to resist?

Or will these changes just continue to roll on inexorably, rolling over people’s concerns until there is a data regime imposed by fait accompli, but without any real social license?

Open Banking Challenge

One of the first big moves for data sharing in Australia is Open banking, which will begin in February 2020, and according to a separate survey from Deloitte, the two most significant issues are trust and privacy.

These two words are quoted regularly when the new world of digital data is discussed, but the Essential survey shows that a lot of work needs to be done before the public is satisfied and confident with the way things are moving.

Just by invoking “trust and privacy” in its rhetoric is not enough for the business world to say that these issues have been resolved.

The digital future depends on it, but it appears there is still a lot of work to be done before true consumer acceptance is achieved.

And you could argue that Government and business are not doing enough to win that acceptance, but are moving to acquire it by other – less consensual – means.