16 (Part 2): Balancing coronavirus privacy vs. public health

Updated: May 30

In our previous blog post, Balance privacy vs convenience, privacy vs targeted marketing, privacy vs safety, we examined the need to balance

1. privacy vs convenience

2. privacy vs commercial interests (e.g.,targeted marketing)

3. privacy vs public safety

In this blog post, we examine the need to balance a special case of #3:

Coronavirus privacy

4. privacy vs public health, and in particular coronavirus privacy vs public health.

The severity of the current coronavirus pandemic reveals how some degree of privacy is being traded off by governments globally for the goal of public health.

A. Medical information privacy

In the US, healthcare providers, employers, and employees need to understand that HIPAA and state regulations that require information about patients be kept confidential and private remain in effect, with limited public health exceptions. Examples of relevant articles are as follows:

B. Digital surveillance by governments

A controversial tradeoff is that some governments – from dictatorships such as China and Iran to democracies such as in parts of Italy, South Korea, Taiwan, and Israel -- have instituted coronavirus regulation enforcement by using non-anonymous location tracking of infected people [about one month after we wrote this, Israel's supreme court has ruled the surveillance must be more restrictive and expire due to privacy]. We believe leaders and people in democratic countries need to be vocal and explicit about the tradeoffs between health vs privacy, assessing benefits vs privacy rights being eroded. Even if location tracking is adopted for worthy public safety reasons, we advocate legislation requiring oversight by legislative and judicial bodies and setting limits on the extent of the surveillance and on access to data collected to ensure these are not abused. A “sunset” provision is also wise to ensure that the location-tracking initiatives are truly temporary and personal data collected have an expiration date.

Privacy is not an absolute. Even democratic countries give up some degree of privacy in exchange for public safety and health. The question we have to answer is where is the right balance. Examples of thought-provoking articles about the risks entailed when governments track coronavirus victims are as follows:

If you have already concluded that you wish to minimize location tracking by the government, consider the measures outlined in the post, stop location tracking.

Take Away

Both as individuals and as democratic societies, we need to balance the tradeoffs of privacy vs public health. Consider advocating with your legislative representative for limits to and oversight of any mass public surveillance.

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