Data security over mobile and web networks is a growing issue. Photo: Public Domain Pictures
Data security over mobile and web networks is a growing issue. Photo: Public Domain Pictures

Data is the four-letter word that fuels our digitized world. Harnessing the power of these simple four characters, means people have the ability to revolutionize global business exchange, innovation, trade and education.

The collection, processing, transmission, storage, sharing and creation of data already underpin almost everything people do today. In 2016, the digital economy accounted for 22% of global economic output while the application of digital technologies – such as cloud computing, data analytics, and the internet of things – is set to increase global GDP by US$2 trillion by 2020.

In particular, Asia is reaping the benefits of data with mobile technology contributing 15 million new jobs, 5.4% of regional GDP and around US$1.3 trillion of economic value in 2015 alone.

However, the social impact of data and mobile technology is even greater. Today, 45% of Asians have access to the mobile internet, and by 2020, an additional 800 million people will be able to shop, listen to music, access information, upload selfies, and do other online activities made possible by data-fueled mobile and digital technology.

Add to that the billions of machines expected to become connected in the next decade through the internet of things. The heart of this digital transformation has largely been powered by a strong stream of information across national borders via mobile technology and the internet.

While the advances in technology have enabled a consumer in Malaysia to purchase a product from a company in the United States, this flow of data comes with the responsibility to protect consumers’ privacy and security as well as business’ data.

This is rightly so and echoed in a 2015 Telenor global privacy survey where 9 out of 10 Asian customers say that transparency and control are important features for their willingness to share data. [Sharing for value!” Global survey on privacy concerns and personalised services]

Delicate and crucial balance

To this end, we are faced with a challenge: balancing the need for adequate data privacy, security and protection with the economic and social needs to drive growth and innovation through data.

While customers are rightfully mindful of their privacy, they also see value in more personalized services and applications. Almost eight out of 10 Asians want apps to be tailored to their specific needs and 70% are willing to share personal data for tailoring.

As a global provider of connectivity and digital services, we understand the challenge intimately from both sides. We understand the protection of personal, corporate and sensitive data is of utmost importance to governments and businesses. We also recognize the regulations needed to ensure data protection and privacy give consumers the confidence to continue leveraging the internet for growth.

Successfully striking this balance is crucial for us all. This can provide 2.5 billion people who currently do not use a bank with access to financial services via a smartphone. Balance can further power innovation within the dynamically expanding Asian ecosystem that has more than 7,000 startups. Balance can help well-established companies continue sharing and scaling their footprint across markets.

Asia’s data dilemma

While we believe governments should implement regulations to ensure the protection and privacy of all data, it is important that regulators and other stakeholders analyze the full context of the free flow of data. The ability to store, transmit, and use information is the source of economic and social value created by the digital economy.

Restrictions that range from data localization (the requirement to store data on servers within the country where the data is produced) to restrictions on the types of data that can be shared across borders, or in some cases, a complete ban on data flows out of the country can hamper Asia’s continued social and economic development.

With digital technologies driving business growth and innovation, especially for small and medium enterprises, such restrictions on data flow will only increase the burden on businesses and consumers.

The global nature of today’s business environment means companies will incur higher costs from the need to store data locally in every country, and from investing resources to comply with different market regulations.

These higher barriers to entry in turn also serve to deter companies from competing, and even innovating. The cost of this data restriction ultimately will be borne by consumers in the form of lost opportunities, services and improvements to their livelihoods.

Protection and growth are both necessary

The way forward requires collaboration, standardization and vision. With digitalization expected to deliver US$100 trillion in value to businesses and societies by 2025, there is a lot at stake. This is a complex matter that encompasses consumer protection, competition regulation, privacy and data protection, security and law enforcement, and even taxation.

Too little protection and regulation make consumers and businesses more vulnerable to cyber threats; too much would throttle invention and growth needed for the world’s economic and social development.

Collaboration must occur between policy makers, telcos and other digital economy stakeholders to evaluate current and potential new data protection, security and privacy regulations.

With such a framework, the ability to collectively build a digitally inclusive Asia where all people have equal access to opportunities for personal and professional development is much more achievable.

In this envisioned Asia, digital and mobile technologies founded on the free flow of data will continue to drive us forward in ways we never dreamed possible.

Rajiv Bawa, head of public & regulatory affairs, Telenor Group in Asia