Data Privacy: Don’t let the pandemic loosen your guard

No doubt, growing awareness of data privacy has enhanced how people take care of their personal information. But there are times when we tend to drop our guard, and mostly when we are anxious. For instance, it is now common in certain countries to carry vaccine certificates on smartphones for seamless access to malls, eateries, or catch a flight.

While we know that having such sensitive information on smartphones puts them at high risk for misuse, fears of rejected access might overpower the sensible things to do. Kenya entered a vaccine regulated access control in December last year, and we are likely to see this trend increase. The challenge for digital users is to be aware of these and other vulnerabilities.

Vaccine certificates, as we know, contain sensitive personal information such as a person’s name, date of birth, age, and gender. Given that an individual’s date of birth is commonly regarded as personally identifiable information (PII) in many countries, it exposes a large population to risks of identity thefts and other kinds of cyber frauds. Rising cybercrime statistics prove that such unprotected data can be easily hacked into or accessed through a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection automatically picked up by your phones. A report released by Kaspersky in November 2021 shows that Africa has become a new target for cybercriminals since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, 32.8 million attacks in Kenya have risen by 15.9 per cent compared to 2020.

Secondly, flaunting vaccination statuses to social networks is a new fad amplifying these risks. With governments rolling out immunisation drives, many citizens have felt the need to declare their vaccination updates on social media feeds and help in raising awareness. Social media timelines are flooded with digital copies of Covid vaccine certificates in many cases.

It’s imperative not to get blinded by the comforts brought into our lives with the evolution of digital technology. Our growing dependence on online products and services exposes us further to security threats and privacy breaches. These risks assume greater relevance, considering the exponential rate at which personal data storage on cloud services have grown during the pandemic. In 2021, the worldwide end-user spending on public cloud services grew 18.4 per cent to $304.9 billion, forecasted a Gartner report. However, have we been able to ramp up our data-security measures at par with these changes? Perhaps not because businesses did not foresee this scale of digitisation and hence never felt the need to shift gears.

Governments across the globe are at a crossroads. Finding a middle in their endeavour to safeguard citizen privacy and digital contact tracing of the virus is the greatest challenge. At a recent public hearing, data protection experts warned a UK parliamentary committee about the perils of exposing critical health data of large populations to private sector players.

Patch updates or security updates periodically sent out by mobile manufacturers can shield your phones from potential breaches.  Manufacturers recommend patch updates be set to automatic to update and protect your devices automatically. 

The writer is data protection officer, VFS Global


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