University of Bristol, UK
With the emergence of Covid-19, countries have introduced tracking and control measures that may intrude on individual privacy. Looking ahead to future crises, how should countries approach the needs of public health vs. those of individual privacy?
“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”
George Orwell’s (in)famous Nineteen Eighty-Four always springs to mind whenever the topic of privacy is brought up. In an age where the tentacles of technology and mass surveillance slither and slide into so many facets of our lives, Orwell’s masterpiece has never been more relevant.
That said, it is incorrect to assume that individual privacy and public health concerns are diametrically opposed to one another and that to achieve public health objectives necessitates an erosion of personal privacy. Rather, by viewing privacy as a subset of public health, we can develop a framework that protects individual privacy rights while securing the health of societies worldwide.
Firstly, we must remind ourselves why privacy is so important. In the words of Privacy International, privacy is a “fundamental right, essential to autonomy and the protection of human dignity.” It empowers individuals, giving them control over the extent to which their personal information is shared and who can access that information. Privacy is essential or the proper functioning of liberal nations that value human dignity and autonomy, seeing it as a necessary building block for the dynamism and creativity we cherish and benefit from. Therefore, safeguarding privacy means protecting an aspect of public health.
According to research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, investments in pandemic infrastructure as well as developing and strengthening public trust in government have proved more influential in determining the success of a country’s pandemic response than their political system. For every authoritarian regime like China that has handled the pandemic relatively well, there are numerous failures in authoritarian states like Iran and Russia, whose pandemic responses have been wayward to say the least. Democratic nations such as Singapore and South Korea were able to “sell” mass track and tracing because their governments already had widespread public support going into the pandemic—the two countries rank sixth and tenth respectively on the Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures how trusted governments are by their citizens. Therefore, an emphasis on developing the necessary infrastructure and gaining the trust of the public will be essential in combating future crises in a manner that safeguards privacy rights.
The collection, processing, and retention of data should be conducted in accordance with the general principles set out in the GDPR. Minimising the amount of information we collect from individuals, as well as limiting both the purposes and storage of such data, would help increase public trust of and participation in government measures that do require the collection of people’s data. This could be realised through limiting the organisations and bodies who can have access to sensitive data. News of the British police being able to access information on whether individuals were subject to a quarantine order contributed to distrust and a fall in people using the UK government’s track and trace system. Ensuring that only a designated health authority has access to such information, as is done in South Korea, would help reduce the risk of people’s personal data being leaked but also increase their faith in the system to protect their personal information and not exploit it.