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Privacy in the times of coronavirus

This pandemic is fought with medical care, information and data. As already discussed, data can be very useful to fight disease and a lot of technology initiatives are already dedicating efforts to fight coronavirus through databases, dashboards, chatbots, 3D printing of medical supplies, work and delivery groups… In this crisis governments are fully aware of the potential of technology, and some countries have released applications with different purposes.

South Corea made it to the headlines as they released an app that can be used by confirmed cases to share their locations with others in an anonymous way. This location is shared with users in the area in the form of alerts with messages like “someone in your area is a confirmed case and this is where they have been to in the last few days”. The app also alerts authorities if a confirmed case that is supposed to be in quarantine leaves their security area.

Other apps like the one launched in Madrid register personal data as a prerequisite for self-assessment of symptoms. This app was launched as a way to reduce the volume of calls received by emergency lines and is proving its efficacy, but has received a lot of criticism.

In the USA, large tech corporations have offered their help to the government, and they have gone as far as to launch solutions like a WHO backed WhatsApp chatbot with information about coronavirus, and to put their data about user location at the disposal of the government to identify possible vectors of transmission based on moves and locations of confirmed cases.

In response to this, some members of the Congress have written a letter asking the Government to take the following measures:

  • establish limitations to data use and to enforce the aggregation, minimization, and anonymization of data
  • define limitations in the use of the data both for the private companies and for the government
  • establish measures of data security
  • explicitly prohibit reidentification
  • make the destruction of data mandatory after the pandemic

In Spain, legal, academic and science professionals have signed a manifesto that asks the government to establish a protocol and 132 organizations have done a similar statement at the European Union level, as you can read in detail in this link.

Personally I struggle to make up my mind. I believe data can be extremely useful to help control the pandemia, on the other hand I fear the misuse of data. I know paperwork and bureaucracy often get in the way of quick deployments, but I also know data can answer many questions and give very private details that, if misused, can have terrible effects. Perhaps simplifying the task by establishing recommendations for rapid prototyping and agile development that still fulfil requirements may make things easier for developers to align with data privacy requirements. Say, making terms and conditions at the national level and using them for all apps, listing preferred suppliers for authentication, storage or analysis that align with privacy needs, or providing an easy way for citizens to access and manage all their personal data, as present in any of these emergency apps and with all the rights RGPD grants them. On the other hand I wonder if governments are ready to take on this task, and even if it makes sense. Some people right now fear the government is going to get their hands on our precious private data, but haven’t we been giving it to private corporations for years? What do you think about privacy in the times of coronavirus?

2 comments

  1. First, this is very well written. Thank you for sharing. Second, this unimaginable “black swan” crisis has brought issues that have been escalating for a while to front stage. We live in a world with choices between terrible and catastrophic. I think we were heading into a post-privacy era and this event has tipped us over. I think there will be some misuse by governments and companies but it will be better positive. Access to all our data will have a profound effect on disease management and eradication as well as ending terror, most crime including mass shootings etc. it will also let us respond much faster to people in danger – both physical and emotional. I would also argue that our fears for loss of privacy are indications of other things that are wrong. Eg if my mobile data is used to raise the cost of my health insurance or get me in trouble with my employer or partner then those are underlying problems with healthcare, employment and relationships that need to be dealt with by other means. I know this is a controversial view, so thanks for reading it.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Ariel. As you point out, we live in a world of choices a d in which our lack of trust is a more related to fears of governments and companies using our data to control us or price us higher. Now, how could we deal with this? Do GDPR and HIPPA serve our needs or do we need other regulations that not only limit how data itself is used, but what actions can derive from it?

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