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COVID-19, digital trust and health surveillance

Digital trust underpins every digital interaction between government, business and people. We make judgments by assessing and quantifying an expectation that by exposing some portion of our digital selves to these entities, they will treat our information and identity with respect.
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The year that changed everything
14 June 2024
David Schmidtchen

Digital trust underpins every digital interaction between government, business and people. We make judgments by assessing and quantifying an expectation that by exposing some portion of our digital selves to these entities, they will treat our information and identity with respect.

Leaders implementing digital initiatives, like the Australian government’s recently announced coronavirus tracing app, are quickly learning that digital trust differs from traditional trust.

Intermediaries such as doctors and cyber specialists are pointing out the irony of Australians questioning the governments’ credentials on safeguarding privacy and personal data in a Facebook post. These experts miss the point. Downloading this app speaks to the question of how we place trust in a digital world.

In a recent article we opened the conversation on digital trust. Our key points were:

  • Trust is at the foundation of all lasting relationships and is central to relationships that fail.
  • The way we calculate and place trust in person seems to be different to the way we trust in the digital world.
  • We hold government and its institutions to a higher standard of trust than business.
  • For government, privacy is expected but trust is earned.
  • As governments channel more into digital services and functions, all leaders will awaken to the critical requirement to prioritise digital trust.
  • But digital trust differs from traditional trust – we calculate it differently.

Tracking and tracing Australians

The Australian government has gone digital in its response to coronavirus. Australians are being asked to download an app that will monitor their movements to allow health officials to trace people who have been in close contact with COVID-19 cases.

Let’s be clear on this: technology-enabled contact tracing is central to moving out of the suppression phase of our response to coronavirus. Effectively tracing and responding to secondary infections is critical to our ‘new normal’. This job is too big for our available health resources; so, we need a technology solution.

In theory, the government needs at least 40% of the population to sign up for the tracking and tracing to be effective. In Singapore, where a similar app was trialled, only 20% of people downloaded the app.

We all want to get out of isolation. So, why wouldn’t we all sign up to the app? The answer is trust, particularly, the way we trust digitally.

Trust as competence and ethics 

The Edelman Trust Barometer has been used to assess public trust for 20 years. It is one of the more comprehensive and respected measures of trust available. The index has consistently shown that trust in government is low and getting lower.

In 2020, Edelman used the principles of competence and ethics as measures of the way people trust then we can see what drives trust. Edelman’s findings on the perceptions of trust in business provides a useful worked example.

In the Index, business was perceived as competent but only a little bit more ethical than government. However, being competent was not enough to be trusted. The analysis showed that integrity, purpose and dependability drove perceptions in business trust more than competence. So, trust is more than competence.

Unseen and unacknowledged, government service delivery does amazing things every day for Australian’s. It is competent and professional; and yet, it is held to a higher standard than say Facebook. Competence alone is not enough. So, just saying you can ‘technically’ do something and that it is ‘obvious’ that people get on board is not enough.

People need to make a judgement about the integrity, purpose and dependability of the voice.

Crafting the trust narrative is important

The narrative is critical to earning trust. Australians heard from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, the Government would “start with voluntary” downloads of the app. The public concern was immediate with sentiment running along the lines of ‘so, if I don’t download it, then what?’.

The narrative moved quickly to privacy, geolocation, surveillance, and the ever-present worries about ‘big brother’. The conversation was no longer about the value of the app in saving people’s lives and getting the economy moving.

In the next phase, there were perceptions the tender process was not transparent, it was awarded to Amazon a U.S. multi-national that was not necessarily subject to Australia law and Australian companies were perceived to be excluded as we looked to import the skill when businesses were under pressure. In response, considerable effort has been put into reassuring Australian’s that their information is secure. Despite this concerns and questions persist.

Trust, in the form of integrity, purpose and dependability, are threaded throughout our conversation about the coronavirus app. Privacy (can I trust you to use this information appropriately?), purpose (what is for and how will it be used?), and dependability (can I rely on you to use it for the reasons you are giving?).

Adoption is about mindset and behaviour change

A lack of trust undermines the two behaviours that are critical for success in applying this technology: first, we each need to decide to download the app; second, is that we need to use it when we have it. Technology adoption is always a two-step dance.

Convincing people to download and use the app requires government authorities to make the trust narrative personal. It is likely that perceptions of integrity and transparency will now drive this public discussion forward.

Contrast this with how easily and quickly Australian’s opted into facial recognition in all the many forms currently implemented by government and business. Implementing facial recognition at airports had a clear and relevant purpose, privacy was bound into an existing understanding that passport information was well protected, and consequently, there was inferred dependability.

The coronavirus app has no precedent in Australia. It is being introduced in a time when we are all uncertain and worried. We are hyper alert to anything new, so the government needs to make it real for people.

Show people why it is important, put it in context with other measures, show people how it makes other initiatives possible, give people examples of how it will be used, and promise people that their digital self will not be compromised.

Public acceptance is crucial to moving out of lockdown

Trust, public acceptance and engagement is at the foundation of our response to coronavirus. We will not move from our current isolation to the ‘new normal’ without consenting to the initiatives that make up our response. Who and what we trust, and the way we place digital trust, will make or break Australia’s response to coronavirus.

This is about changing behaviour by improving our strategic messaging and communication. Most importantly, the behaviours we want people to engage in will be played out locally in in parks, shops, workplaces. We will consent to the need to change behaviour, but it will also require community acceptance of new shared norms.

We know that to change, align or engage people in communities (and reduce social resistance) strategic messaging to change behaviour should be:

»              Personal. Messaging is more effective when it is personalised to the interactions between people who can relate to one another.

»               Accountable. Messaging is more effective when the behavioural change is observable to others.

»               Normative. Messaging is more effective when it conveys what relevant people think others should do as well as what relevant people do.

»               Relatable. Messaging is more effective when they align behaviours with the ways people see themselves or would like to see themselves.

»               Connected: Messaging is more effective when it leverages the structure of people’s networks of relationships and the platforms that maintain those networks.

Leadership and communication in a crisis are always difficult, but we know from experience that it moves through stages. We have moved through the first stage of ‘scepticism and denial’ where we need clear communication about the immediate situation and the risk.

We also moved out the second stage of ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ where we need reassurance and connection. We are currently in the third stage, the ‘adjustment loop’. Here, we need transparency and to be engaged in the solution to get to the fourth stage ‘post-crisis’, which is some way off.

In every stage, trust, public acceptance, engagement, and individual consent will be required.