The Data Privacy Conundrum: What Would You Give Up To Protect Public Health?

22 March 2020

Inner Report Image

 Martina Fuchs

As the largest quarantine in human history to try to contain the coronavirus pandemic is underway, concerns are rising about data surveillance and privacy as a human right.

Google, Facebook and other tech giants are reportedly in talks with the U.S. government over using location and movement data from smartphones to study transmission patterns in a bid to fight the outbreak.But not everybody is happy with this. 

With more than 315,992 reported cases worldwide and 13,407 deaths, the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing. (Visit the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for the latest data)

From South Korea to Israel, governments already use mobile data to monitor and track its spread, and to analyze contact and transmission rates. But some human rights defenders worry that tracking cases could also lead to the violation of the most basic rights. 

As a running list of countries around the globe are on lockdown, COVID-19 causes a heavy government involvement in our daily lives. It also risks to legitimize authorities to increase their surveillance tactics and censorship using artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. 

Several organizations including Amnesty International now even warn that the response to the pandemic has the potential to affect the human rights of millions of people. First and foremost is the right to health, but there are several other rights at stake too, such as discrimination,arbitrary detention, and privacy.

Privacy is a fundamental human right recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and in many other international and regional treaties. 

Access Now, an international digital rights non-profit, has said that “governments are legitimising tools of oppression as tools of public health”.  

The fact and danger of the matter is that governments have extraordinary powers during emergencies. While some temporary invasion of privacy is inevitable such as mandatory temperature checks at airports, keeping travel records, health records and other data indefinitely is not legitimate. 

The UK government for example has introduced a new legislation and emergency powers to contain the spread of COVID-19. Under the new Emergency Coronavirus Bill, public health officers, police and immigration officers have the right to hold suspected patients for screening.  

These draconian measures to protect public health won’t last forever and must be exercised in strict accordance with the law. But they will unavoidably interfere with the most basic human rights: the right to liberty and the right to privacy

While it’s all hands on deck as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, the danger is that these measures stay in place and the data continues to be collected and used long after the pandemic is gone. 

 One solution could be data anonymization, but the risk of breaches and cyberattacks will always remain. Data privacy could well be coronavirus’ next victim.


 Martina Fuchs
Euro Med Monitor Media Adviser