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  • Writer's picturePre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Big Brother is Knocking – Balancing Public Health versus Personal Privacy

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

By Dominik B. Mautner, Sydney Church of England Grammar School, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Would you rather suffer from a COVID-19 infection or have your location details monitored around the clock?

Government authorities tend to insist on an intrinsic dichotomy – either protection from the virus or safeguarding of personal privacy. In times of a pandemic, priority invariably shifts towards the common good of public health rather than individuals’ data protection and even human rights. While many public health measures do not require data collection (such as washing hands, physical distancing, staying at home, wearing a mask, or using hand sanitizer), other measures can insidiously encroach on personal privacy, e.g., COVID tracking apps or contact tracing (Mikkelsen et al., 2020). In combatting a public health crisis, are we unwittingly creating a civil liberties crisis (Biddle, 2020)?

There is no question that saving human lives must be the guiding principle for any mandated action. However, in the name of controlling a pandemic, governments introduced far-reaching measures with limited proven effectiveness, but considerable infringements on personal freedom, such as:

  1. Limiting personal movement, including restrictions on public gatherings, quarantine, isolation, and lockdown

  2. Health reporting, including COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, and health surveys

  3. Health tracking, including contact tracing, CCTV monitoring, and phone location records (Mikkelsen et al., 2020).

Thus, accepting those exceptional procedures during a pandemic, our daily routine suddenly included disclosing our details to public venues, scanning QR codes documenting our every move, and letting strangers take our temperature.

However, there is an increasing concern that measures introduced as “temporary” could simply linger on permanently, and technology originally geared towards protecting us from a virus could soon make us the new target infiltrating our lives until widespread surveillance becomes the “new normal." In other words, are we headed to an Orwellian post-pandemic future?

There are no easy answers given the complex dynamics in global health crises. But ultimately, solutions should aim at balancing communal benefits and individual rights while (a) upholding human rights, (b) engaging in comprehensive planning rather than ad hoc decision-making, and (c) enacting policies to prevent data misuse.

(a) Human Rights-based Approach

Privacy is a fundamental human right recognized in the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 (United Nations Publications, 1948). It underpins human dignity and should be respected even in times of crisis (Banisar & Davies, n.d.). For instance, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and ePrivacy Directive are deemed rigorous in their human rights-based data protection, (Eijk, 2020), but nevertheless were able to accommodate pandemic emergency measures including COVID tracking systems while preserving user control over personal data. In the United States, where privacy laws are more fragmented, the private sector showcased a remarkable collaboration with Apple and Google developing a COVID-19 exposure alert system with privacy as a key aspect (Bekkoenova & Idrizi, 2020; Leswing, 2020).

(b) Planning and Preparedness

In recent history, we are reminded of the Spanish flu (1918) and smaller yet terrifying outbreaks such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 2003), avian flu (2007), swine flu (H1N1, 2009) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS, 2015). Yet, surprisingly, most governments were unprepared for COVID-19. Establishing a public health emergency framework based on scientific principles, transparency, and inclusivity will avoid hasty patchwork regulations and unnecessary trade-offs between public health measures and citizens’ privacy in the future. South Korea has received much praise as an example for pandemic preparedness. Learning from the MERS outbreaks, the government added a comprehensive national infectious disease plan (Huzar, 2020). When COVID-19 struck, an early, aggressive government response during the first wave promptly reduced the number of infections without closing businesses or strict lockdowns (Our World In Data, 2020).

(c) Walls and Sunset Clause

Individuals’ COVID-19 data that can’t be anonymized or aggregated could be walled off similar to census data in many countries to avoid unintended data sharing across agencies. Finally, the end of the pandemic should trigger a sunset clause, which requires removal of stored COVID-related personal data to prevent data breaches or misuse (Biddle, 2020).

Due to COVID-19, intrusive public health surveillance measures have been introduced in many countries to decrease the spread of the virus, but could also erode our civil liberties along the way. There is thus an increasing urgency to develop solutions that balance both public health measures and individuals’ right to privacy. Big Brother is knocking – do we let him in?



Banisar, D., & Davies, S. (n.d.). Privacy and Human Rights - An International Survey of Privacy Laws and Practice. Global Internet Liberty Campaign.

Bekkoenova, A., & Idrizi, Z. (2020, May 15). In a global pandemic, do we still have a right to privacy? UNDP.

Biddle, S. (2020, April 2). Privacy Experts Say Responsible Coronavirus Surveillance Is Possible. The Intercept.

Huzar, T. (2020, August 18). COVID-19: What can we learn from South Korea’s response? Medical News Today.

Leswing, K. (2020, October 4). States are finally starting to use the Covid-tracking tech Apple and Google built — here’s why. CNBC.

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Mikkelsen, D., Soller, H., & Strandell-Jansson, M. (2020, June 15). Privacy, security, and public health in a pandemic year. McKinsey & Company.

Our World In Data. (2020, June 30). Emerging COVID-19 success story: South Korea learned the lessons of MERS.

United Nations Publications. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.

van Eijk, R. (2020, October 1). Rob van Eijk Discusses Trends in European Privacy Discussions. Future of Privacy Forum.

van Eijk, R., & Dorwart, H. (2020, October 27). Event Recap: Panel at the Annual Privacy Forum 2020. Future of Privacy Forum.

Vou, A. (2020, July 29). The pandemic as a pretext for widespread digital surveillance. VoxEurop.

Article Thumbnail Composite Images

de Matos, R. (2020, July 29). Appbuse [Illustration]. Voxeurop.

Financial Times. (2019, January 17). Orwell v Huxley: whose dystopia are we living in today? [Illustration]. Financial Times: Orwell v Huxley: Whose Dystopia Are We Living in Today?


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