#Privacy in the age of pandemics

We all want to defeat Covid-19. But how far should we go? And what about preparing for future pandemics? Do we need to enlist Big Brother to support us in this battle?

It appears that in China the virus spread is declining rapidly — just 67 new cases yesterday (26th March). But there is a price.

 The price is almost a complete erosion of privacy. Chinese authorities can trace the movements of most citizens, via their use of WeChat and ever-present video cameras. Authorities can find out where citizens have been who they have been near, and quarantine anyone who has been in contact with someone who has tested positive. This superb video tells the story.

In South Korea, things are not quite so extreme. Even so, ever since the MERS epidemic, the country has put in place a system of contact tracing, so that the government can trace an individual’s digital footprint. “The “Korean response was quite draconian If you compare to the standards you have in the UK,” said Dr Hoon-Sang Lee, of Yonsei University School of Public Health, interviewed on Channel Four News, “but it was not as drastic as what they have done in China.”

But this too is working, the number of new cases has slowed dramatically and yesterday there were only five new deaths in the country.

But how far should we go? Under GDPR you don’t need permission to process an individual’s data if it is in the public interest to do so.

According to the GDPR legislation itself, there is a human right to privacy. Does the imperative to defeat Covid-19 override our right to privacy?

Should the government track all citizens, quarantine anyone who has been near someone else with the condition? How far should authorities go in enforcing the lock-down? If everyone who is not a key worker is told to stay indoors, and an individual’s digital footprint, tracked by authorities, indicates they have disobeyed the instruction, how punitive should the government response be?

Could this be the thin end of the wedge?

Covid-19 is the third major Coronavirus this century, there will almost certainly be more this decade. Given the risk of future pandemics, should authorities leave tracking technology in place, should they carry on tracking us, just in case another pandemic emerges. Is there a risk that we will gradually come to accept surveillance?

Is there a risk that third parties will hack into the data collected by authorities?

Is this the new normal? Is Big Brother now our friend, imposing tough love to protect us, or might Big Brother become a bully — threatening and cajoling us, an Orwellian nightmare made real?


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