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Privacy At Risk, From GDPR To Israeli Spyware

The COVIDSafe app in Australia
The COVIDSafe app in Australia
Anne Sophie Goninet

There is nothing like a highly contagious pandemic to remind us how each of our lives is connected to our neighbors — and the rest of the world. That takes on a different form in our digital age, where tracing applications hold the potential of both protecting us from one another and invading our personal privacy in whole new ways.

Back in 2018, the European Union adopted landmark legislation to protect individual privacy online with the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. This new set of rules was designed to give online users more control over their personal data, by imposing a range of obligations to any organization operating in the EU and harsh penalties of several millions of euros for those failing to comply. It was aimed to shift the balance of power on personal privacy, from Big Tech back to you and me.

But two years later, the European Union has now admitted in an official report that is set to be published today that implementing the GDPR has proven to be more difficult than expected. The report highlights a lack of clarity of the rules when it comes to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, as well as discrepancies and confusion over how the rules are applied at individual country level. Small businesses with limited budgets are also struggling to comply with the regulations and its high costs.

Digital attacks on privacy are bound to continue — Photo: TNS/ZUMA

The pendulum on digital privacy protection is swinging in various directions, all around the world. And some other current examples in the world are more worrying than Google or Amazon knowing your buying habits: Moroccan journalist Omar Radi was recently targeted by sophisticated spyware made by an Israeli security firm. The Moroccan authorities used NSO's Pegasus software to access data on the journalist's cell phone — although the company had previously pledged to stop its products from being used in human rights abuses. It's only the latest sign of what Le Monde describes as a troubling "porosity" in Israel between the cyber units of the country's intelligence services and a burgeoning digital startup scene.

But now Israel's own COVID-19 tracking app has been at the heart of a controversy since it was launched in March. The government had approved the country's domestic security agency to use its counterterrorism surveillance measures to track virus patients. The order authorizing temporary use of the technology is set to expire in a few weeks and a parliamentary oversight committee is now asking the government to stop using the app. But as Israel is experiencing a second wave of infections, will the country really abandon this practice that it defended as a way to save lives?

Still, as we all know by now, most privacy invasions tend to be collateral damage in the quest to make money rather than save lives. A study conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas found that 72 mobile apps for kids out of 100 violated a federal law aimed at protecting children's online privacy. The researchers developed a tool with a 99% accuracy that identified games and apps with privacy risks and which made it easy to determine a child's identity and location.

Whether it's tracking your kid's whereabouts or hounding a journalist, digital attacks on privacy are bound to continue. GDPR, at best, was only ever going to be a deterrent, never a cure.

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Livestream Shopping Is Huge In China — Will It Fly Elsewhere?

Streaming video channels of people shopping has been booming in China, and is beginning to win over customers abroad as a cheap and cheerful way of selling products to millions of consumers glued to the screen.

A A female volunteer promotes spring tea products via on-line live streaming on a pretty mountain surrounded by tea plants.

In Beijing, selling spring tea products via on-line live streaming.

Xinhua / ZUMA
Gwendolyn Ledger

SANTIAGOTikTok, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has spent more than $500 million to break into online retailing. The app, best known for its short, comical videos, launched TikTok Shop in August, aiming to sell Chinese products in the U.S. and compete with other Chinese firms like Shein and Temu.

Tik Tok Shop will have three sections, including a live or livestream shopping channel, allowing users to buy while watching influencers promote a product.

This choice was strategic: in the past year, live shopping has become a significant trend in online retailing both in the U.S. and Latin America. While still an evolving technology, in principle, it promises good returns and lower costs.

Chilean Carlos O'Rian Herrera, co-founder of Fira Onlive, an online sales consultancy, told América Economía that live shopping has a much higher catchment rate than standard website retailing. If traditional e-commerce has a rate of one or two purchases per 100 visits to your site, live shopping can hike the ratio to 19%.

Live shopping has thrived in China and the recent purchases of shopping platforms in some Latin American countries suggests firms are taking an interest. In the United States, live shopping generated some $20 billion in sales revenues in 2022, according to consultants McKinsey. This constituted 2% of all online sales, but the firm believes the ratio may become 20% by 2026.

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