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Collecting personal data for the best of reasons — such as tackling the coronavirus pandemic — has triggered a wave of misgivings. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has responded to growing concerns with a statement (March 10, 2020) urging “a balance between collective good and civil liberties.” The EFF statement says: 

“Across the world, public health authorities are working to contain the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019). In pursuit of this urgent and necessary task, many government agencies are collecting and analyzing personal information about large numbers of identifiable people, including their health, travel, and personal relationships. As our society struggles with how best to minimize the spread of this disease, we must carefully consider the way that ‘big data’ containment tools impact our digital liberties.” 

In Canada, privacy advocates have urged vigilance, noting that the feds and some provincial governments have not ruled out digital tracking of citizens, much like what Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have done to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Tech companies have been urging governments to use location or Bluetooth data to track the spread of COVID-19.  

“…there are emergency provision sections within privacy laws that allow for additional collection tracking of information under emergencies, such as this pandemic,” according to Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner and current expert-in-residence at Ryerson University, in an interview with NOW magazine.  

If governments decide to take this measure, “it must be proportionate, legitimate, transparent and there must be a firm sunset clause,” said Cavoukian. “The absence of sunset clauses and the transparency would limit our ability to bring it back.” 

There must be “responsibility and accountability on the part of government,” added Cavoukian. “And the problem is, once governments start collecting additional information, they rarely pull it back because they love having lots of information and control of it. And that’s the problem. You can’t leave it to them to be protecting our data. We have to insist upon it.” 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that while his government has not looked at the possibility of using location data from citizens’ phones as a strategy to deal with the pandemic, it is not off the table. “I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation, but as far as I know that is not a situation we are looking at right now,” said Trudeau.  

The topic of digital privacy is not new. Digital technologies have been subject to scrutiny by civil society groups concerned at the intrusion by governments and corporate interests into private lives and at the potential misuse of personal data. 

While noting that efforts by public health agencies and government entities to combat the spread of COVID-19 are warranted, the EFF says public policy must find a balance between collective good and civil liberties. “It is important, however, that any extraordinary measures used to manage a specific crisis must not become permanent fixtures in the landscape of government intrusions into daily life [or that they] to outlive their urgency.” 

The EFF calls for a firm commitment to the following principles: 

  • Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate. 

  • Data collection based on science not bias. 

  • Expiration of data. 

  • Transparency of usage. 

  • Due process. 

In times of humanitarian and natural disasters, people and communities need effective and trustworthy means of communication. Community media and digital technologies can provide ways for people to stay in touch as well as vital information that can save lives. 

David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is on record saying, “Human rights — its vocabulary, its framework, its vision — provides a basis for restraining the worst intrusions and violations of the digital world, and promoting its best.”

In this respect, open and equitable access to the digital sphere as well as digital privacy are key elements of today’s communication rights in practice.

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012). WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people’s dignity and community.

Image: madartzgraphics/Pixabay

Philip Lee

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The...