Privacy in a time of coronavirus

Person being scanned

With more than three billion smartphone users across the globe, governments have a unique opportunity to gather data to map the whereabouts of the population. This has become a particularly valuable tool in the fight to track and slow the spread of Covid-19. However, with stringent privacy laws found in many countries, the question is: Does a global pandemic supersede these laws? And if so, what happens after the crisis is over? 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, governments around the world have implemented a variety of digital tracking, physical surveillance and censorship measures in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Many of these measures may well be appropriate, necessary and legitimate, while other methods have been more extreme.

The primary objective of surveillance monitoring during the pandemic is to track the course of the pandemic. Surveillance will include geographical spread, disease trends, intensity of transmission, impact of the pandemic on healthcare services, as well as changes in the epidemiology. Monitoring the pandemic will help in modifying response strategies

Google recently launched its Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports, using aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. This information will be helpful to local and governmental officials as they make critical decisions to combat Covid-19. 

The reports are being released globally, covering 131 countries and regions, as well as relevant city-level data. The reports will show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior. According to Google, in order to protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point. 

Beyond what Google is now offering the global community, Top10VPN has created a Covid-19 Digital Rights Tracker, which provides updated information on current measures that threaten digital rights across the globe. These measures go beyond aggregated, anonymized data towards apps that track citizens during lockdown, apps that identify the location of those with the virus as well as other advanced mobile monitoring and physical surveillance technologies.

The chart below shows the number of countries across the regions implementing these measures.

The chart shows the number of countries across the regions implementing these measures.

Interestingly enough, the World Health Organization has an entire report that was published in 2017 related to surveillance during a global pandemic. The goal of this report was to establish standardized and coordinated international information sharing, which is crucial to manage such an event at global and national levels.

Per the report: “Early detection of the start of a pandemic is crucial to rapidly implement measures to control the outbreak at its source, and to mitigate the impacts by slowing the spread of the virus. Early surveillance data will inform public health interventions aimed at slowing transmission, including non-pharmaceutical interventions, which may involve movement restrictions, cancelling mass gatherings and social distancing.” Unfortunately, they have not updated this report to reflect the current situation or the technologies available to track and monitor.

Covid-19 Mobility Data Network (CMDN)

While Google and others are providing reports, The Covid-19 Mobility Data Network (CMDN) – a network of infectious disease epidemiologists at universities around the world working with technology companies, such as Facebook, Cuebic and Camber Systems – was established to coordinate the aggregated mobility data to support the Covid-19 response. The goals of CMDN is to provide daily updates to decision-makers at state and local levels on how well social distancing interventions are working, using anonymized, aggregated data sets from mobile devices, and to provide them analytic support for interpretation.

The CMDN has placed high value on privacy and data protection, using the following principles to guide their efforts:

  • The use of data, including data sharing, aggregation, and analysis, for Covid19 response must speak to a clear need articulated by public health authorities, and for no other purpose.
  • The use of data must both be in compliance with existing laws and adhere to best practice principles of data governance.
  • Data should be aggregated to the lowest feasible resolution possible while maintaining its desired utility.
  • The use of data must be transparent, inclusive, and safeguarded against unintended consequences.

These are principals that should be at the forefront of any changes to public policy regarding the use and collection of data. While there may be a time and a place to reduce some privacy in order to save lives, there must be a balance to ensure that these “special circumstances” do not become permanent fixtures in the protection of an individual’s data.

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