Oscar Wilde was known for saying “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” For a period of time, we were only confronted with the scary aspects of “Big Data.” Think The Great Hack and the testy congressional hearings that we watched.
But the viral pandemic has thrown privacy absolutism into deeper question, as we are suddenly faced with a problem that in order to be solved must involve finding and tracking people for extended periods of time. We need to decide how to balance the societal need for virus control with the societal good of personal privacy.
Contact tracing is often used as an epidemic control measure. Lawmakers have discussed using the tool in the U.S. as Apple and Google work together to develop an effective contract tracing system. It has been deployed against illnesses such as measles, SARs, typhoid, meningococcal disease, and Ebola. It is currently being implemented in South Korea and China to combat COVID-19.
The Israeli government approved tracking cell phone data of people suspected of having coronavirus, to make sure they self-isolated. This emergency power lasted for 30 days. Israel’s Supreme Court, concerned with the privacy implications of using a military technology to track its own citizens’ daily movements, decided that the government would be required to halt this surveillance technology until or unless the government can pass an extension of that use. Then an oversight group in Israel's parliament blocked an attempt to extend the emergency measures beyond this week, also due to privacy concerns. A committee member said the harm done to privacy outweighed the benefits.
As I recently wrote, this crisis may be testing sensibilities about privacy. Perhaps I was wrong. Sentiments do not seem to be moving aggressively towards greater data collection, or a sacrifice of consumer rights. Instead there appears to be a return towards measuring the weight of data against the potential for abuse, or grand commodification of personal information. In Israel more than 200 people, some identified through phone location information, had been arrested for violating quarantine. Thirty days of these extreme measures were tolerable. Then the Israelis had second thoughts.
Ulrich Kelber, Germany’s federal data protection commissioner, who recently claimed that the lack of GDPR enforcement was a result of enforcement agencies not receiving enough resources, backed a plan for Germany’s disease prevention agency to use Deutsche Telekom metadata. Considering just a week earlier he deemed tracking individual smartphones to monitor quarantine “totally inappropriate and encroaching measure,” it is apparent that Germany is balancing the harsh reality of the crisis and the immediate need for certain information with this encroachment.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioner released a “Framework for the Government of Canada to Assess Privacy-Impactful Initiatives in Response to COVID-19.” The Commissioner’s Office acknowledged that COVID-19 raised “exceptionally difficult challenges to both privacy and public health.” However, the framework reiterated that “the principles of necessity and proportionality, whether in applying existing measures or in deciding on new actions to address the current crisis,” will govern. Canada too is weighing the need of the information collected against the nature and sensitivity of the information collected.
The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) provided multiple guidance documents regarding COVID-19. Much like its Canadian counterpart, guidance provides that the “general principles of effectiveness, necessity, and proportionality must guide any measures adopted by Member States or EU institutions that involve processing of personal data to fight COVID-19.” These guidelines clarify the conditions and principles for the proportionate use of location data and contact tracing tools. But the EDPB also stressed that the “data protection legal framework was designed to be flexible and as such, is able to achieve both an efficient response in limiting the pandemic and protecting fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
Here in the United States, all eyes have been on the California Attorney General regarding enforcement of the California Consumer Privacy Act, which is set to begin on July 1, 2020. Unlike our neighbors to the North and Europe, there is no significant sentiment of the need for balance or proportionality. Just a reminder that as “the health emergency leads more people to look online to work, shop, connect with family and friends, and be entertained, it is more important than ever for consumers to know their rights under the California Consumer Privacy Act.”
For many sovereigns, this crisis has led enforcement agencies and legislatures to return to the roots of data privacy, which is balance and proportionality. Many privacy laws require a balancing test for entities collecting data. COVID-19 has made these principles re-emerge into the limelight.