In the Era of COVID-19, Its time to be a Privacy Pragmatist

Posted on May 4, 2020

At the turn of the millennium, the late, great, US privacy guru, Dr. Alan Westin, divided consumers into 3 groups. He labeled the first group privacy fundamentalists: the hardliners who feel that they have lost a lot of their privacy and are strongly resistant to any further erosion of it. He labeled the second group the privacy unconcerned: people who have no real concerns about privacy and have far less anxiety about how other people and organizations use their information. The third group was labeled the privacy pragmatists: people who have strong feelings about privacy and are very concerned about the misuse of personal information. However, the pragmatists are often willing to allow others to access and use their personal information where they understand the reasons for its use and see tangible benefits for so doing.

 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need privacy pragmatists. The pragmatist seeks balance. Applying one of Dr. Ann Cavoukian’s privacy-by-design principles, privacy is not a zero-sum game. The pragmatist is looking for a win–win, not a win-lose. In the challenges before us, privacy must be an enabler, not a boat anchor. It’s not a question of public health vs. a strong economy vs. privacy. The question is how do we have all three?

 

For starters, its worth reminding ourselves that most privacy laws have carve-outs for public health emergencies. Its OK to sacrifice some privacy to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals and communities. But this is not a blank check. Its not a license to snoop on your neighbours.

 

Locked up in our homes, its easy to not notice how BIG this is. This isn’t an isolated incident. It affects all seven billion people alive in almost 200 countries. Air traffic is grounded. Borders are closed. We’ve shut down the world economy. This is an epic of biblical proportions. A thousand years from now, this event and how we responded will be remembered.

 

The way out of this will be data driven. Artificial Intelligence, surveillance technologies, testing and contact tracing will be among the tools used by public heath officials and political leaders to manage the pandemic. But it will be easy for politicians and other power brokers to run roughshod over our privacy rights in the name of pandemic management. More than ever, we need pragmatic privacy champions to hold the line on the erosion of privacy rights, but still give our public health officials the room they need to combat the coronavirus.

 

We have a few arrows in our quiver to draw upon as we join the fight against COVID-19. Privacy impact assessment, privacy by design, de-identification of personal information, data minimization and other tools and techniques will enable us to help our public health colleagues harness the data needed to beat this invisible monster.

 

So please become a pragmatic privacy champion. Join with your local team battling the virus. Prepare to be creative. Speak up for privacy!

 

 

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