Do Privacy Rights Override #COVID19 Surveillance Measures?

The urgency of the need to manage and find cures for COVID-19 has made it necessary to share information between international research institutions. The sharing of information also means transferring of Big Data which inevitably will infringe on individual privacy.

Therefore, the transfer and handling of Big Data in this way, whether permissible under extenuation circumstances or not, requires responsibility, and the need to protect privacy cannot be ignored.

To mitigate the risks of spreading and worsening of the pandemic, scanning methods are being used to diagnose the presence of the virus, whilst some countries are developing contact tracing apps. Google and Apple apps provide a decentralized software architecture, and save a log of the user contacts within the app, but not uploaded to a government serve, whereas the NHS contact tracing app in the UK logs information of users in centralized database of government servers.

There is public concern about this method of holding personal data in a centralized database, which the government departments and law enforcement agencies who would use it to for surveillance operations on a scale never seen before. 

France and UK are amongst few European countries that have opted for a centralized model for COVID-19 contacts tracing. The French government has chosen to have user information fed into a central server. However, downloading and installation of the app is voluntary.

The UK is also pursuing a centralized approach to tracking. With reference to ongoing concerns about the contact tracing app, a former director of GCHQ has given assurances that any data collected will not be shared with any other government departments or private companies.

The world is in unprecedented pandemic, but the application of human rights laws stands.  Therefore, states cannot simply turn a blind eye to privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis. That has prompted some human rights and civil society organizations around the world to speak with one voice, calling all governments to adhere to human rights laws when employ digital surveillance technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations in combatting the spread of COVID-19.

In support, the Amnesty International UK director has pointed out that the Government should be looking at decentralized app models where contact-tracing data stays on a user's device. It is a fact that the contact tracing app entails data gathering on an unprecedented level, and that makes it open to unauthorized disclosure.

The response of the government and the tech industry to the COVID-19 outbreak has already raised concerns about the implication of using contact tracing apps on privacy, during and after COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, the general public should be vigilant and be aware of the technological developments which will affect user privacy.

On the other hand, concerns raised by the public in the use of technological solutions to combat COVID-19 demonstrates the extent of their awareness of the risk.

The impact of contact tracing apps cannot be taken in isolation, and the focus should also be on the impact of facial recognition cameras, wearable bands and police surveillance drones. For instance, the Chinese authorities have been using street cameras with facial recognition system to apprehend, shame, and fine citizens venturing outside without face masks and even used similar tools to identify and quarantine individuals who appeared to have carrying the virus.

South Korea has also employed a broad surveillance mechanism, and according to a report, the Seoul government has heavily relied on information collected from CCTV footage, bank card records, and mobile phone data to deal with the outbreak. The reports also claim that the UK has used drones to track people who were ignoring COVID-19 social distancing rules. Whatever and whoever, using such mechanisms will be infringing on public privacy in one way or another.

Even though the technology has the capacity to contribute to tackle the pandemic effectively, it comes at the expense of privacy rights. The biggest problem we face is visualizing the degree of surveillance and what surprises it will bring. Given a choice between privacy and health, the people are likely to choose health, but it is desirable that they should choose both.

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