The Fine Balance Between Civil Liberties & Humanitarian Good;
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only led to discussions around the capacity of healthcare systems across the globe to deal with the rising number of cases and the ability of societies to take the necessary measures to protect public health, it also raises questions around how legislation, governance frameworks and civil liberties can take a back seat to allow for surveillance practices that are being used for humanitarian good – even the methods which, in normal circumstances, would be frowned upon.
Whilst they are arguably being implemented to contribute to the greater good during the current situation, such practices should be reviewed and assessed in terms of effectiveness, necessity and implementation.
Powering the response with data:
A main part of the response to the pandemic has been contact tracing – by determining who has come into contact with an infected individual, this method supports quarantine efforts and helps to minimize the spread of the virus.
Of course, it makes perfect sense from the outset but contact tracing relies on digital tools and apps, including GPS location monitoring, usage of mobile telephone data and Bluetooth tracking. It is also unclear whether the system being used is centralized or decentralized, or whether the anonymization of data is proving effective.
After all, a relatively recent study showed that even anonymized data can include up to 15 demographic characteristics which could potentially be used for identification or profiling. Therefore, we are faced with that delicate balance between the use of valuable data to help confine the spread of Covid-19 and the use of valuable data for, potential surveillance.
Equally, health data is being used to understand how the virus works. Similarly, there needs to be clarity around who is using this data, in what capacity it is being used and what steps are taken to protect the identity of the individual to whom the information belongs. Without this clarity, how can anyone properly give consent for the use of their data?
The dangers of battlefield approach:
At times such as these, a battlefield approach is often adopted and it is completely understandable. However, it can lead to corners being cut in the interest of the larger aim to protect society.
One area that can become loose is legislation. Even the gold standard in the area of data – GDPR – allows for exemptions to use personal information for public interest. The presence of this loophole is incredibly worrying, as it can create ambiguity. Surely, more defined operating practices for challenging situations could be established.
The reality is that we live in a cyber-society where humanity and technology are irreversibly intertwined, but that doesn’t mean that the pillars of transparency, consent and cyber-security should be forgotten. If anything, there should be clearer guidelines as to how governments and entities can use data to do what is required but within the confines of the law, whilst protecting the privacy of the individual.
Covid-19 is a stress test for our sense of normalcy. From a technology perspective, it offers up a unique opportunity to assess, renew and build the foundations on which we can survive the challenges that face us, and address the problematic structures of digital infrastructure and data collection.
Finding the right balance:
Consideration needs to be given to how we are currently collecting data and using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to respond to this crisis. Moreover, we need to think about what happens to the data that has been collected by governments when the pandemic subsides and humanity returns to a new form of normality.
There needs to be a framework, underpinned by legislation, that withstands this pressure test without sacrificing privacy, agency, security and transparency. The answer isn’t that this data shouldn’t be used – after all, it has the ability to help the world combat and overcome the challenge presented by Covid-19.
It’s more that it should be used in a way that achieves the desired aim – monitoring the movement of people and curbing the spread of infection to help the allocation of adequate resources – without infringing on the rights of individuals – by avoiding personalization and upholding governance.
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