Pre-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:
Limiting personal movement, including restrictions on public gatherings, quarantine, isolation, and lockdown
Health reporting, including COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, and health surveys
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?
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Bekkoenova, A., & Idrizi, Z. (2020, May 15). In a global pandemic, do we still have a right to privacy? UNDP. https://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/rbec/en/home/blog/2020/global-pandemic-right-to-privacy.html
Biddle, S. (2020, April 2). Privacy Experts Say Responsible Coronavirus Surveillance Is Possible. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2020/04/02/coronavirus-covid-19-surveillance-privacy/
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Article Thumbnail Composite Images
de Matos, R. (2020, July 29). Appbuse [Illustration]. Voxeurop. https://voxeurop.eu/en/coronavirus-pandemic-as-a-pretext-for-widespread-digital-surveillance/
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? https://www.ft.com/content/aa8ac620-1818-11e9-b93e-f4351a53f1c3