COVID-19 and Privacy

I apologize in advance for writing about COVID-19, as I’m sure we are all relatively sick of reading and talking about it, but I came across a topic which is relevant to many of the themes we have been exploring in this class.

BBC has reported that South Korea, Singapore, and Israel have deployed apps that can help the authorities track who users have come into contact with, to help model the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, Taiwan has introduced an “electronic fence” system that alerts the police if a quarantined user leaves their home or switches off their cellphone for too long.

England and Europe have had a number of mobile network operators offer to provide anonymized data about users’ movements to help identify potential “hot zones” where the virus might be at most risk of spreading.

From my perspective, apps like this might be useful for social distancing, as I have often wondered what my risk of exposure is to COVID-19 within my own community of Kitsilano. However, the article cautions against being too receptive to apps and technology of this nature, as we may be “allowing our huge concern in the short-term about stopping the spread of the virus to blind us to the long-term danger of ushering in a surveillance state”. Indeed, many countries around the world have declared states of emergency, and rightly so. However, in general, declaring emergency measures grants government authorities emergency powers, and there is a concern that these emergency measures may be used nefariously in the long term to further erode our collective right to privacy, as “such measures have a nasty habit of becoming permanent”. One of the main concerns is that it is unclear how the data collected by these apps and technologies will be handled once the COVID-19 threat has subsided.

An open letter to England’s National Health Services (“NHS”), penned by a number of “responsible technologists”, calls on the NHS to make commitments to provide clear and regular updates on the use of such technology, to set up a panel involving patients and the public to check that privacy rights are upheld, and to publish clear terms and conditions for any new applications. These three suggestions may go a long way to upholding privacy rights, not only for this particular technology, but for all new technologies which affect our right to privacy. Such consultations, which involve both the public and technology providers, may result in greater protections for individual privacy while simultaneously allowing responsible parties to use new technology and personal data in a way that is beneficial and effective, but does not overstep certain boundaries. Consultations of this nature would be incredibly useful in the realm of facial recognition technology, which is a technology that has advanced very quickly in the last few years, with very few checks and balances put in place to prevent intrusions on privacy.

However, the writer of the letter to the NHS, Yuval Noah Harari, says that, “when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health”. It is likely that our individual right to privacy may be eroded in the short-term to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it remains to be seen how emergency measures, such as using apps to track the spread of COVID-19, may affect privacy in the future.

This post is based on the following two articles:;

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