Balancing Individual Privacy with Public Safety during Covid-19

The COVID-19 outbreak and containment have given rise to the question that Balancing Individual Privacy with Public Safety during Covid-19 is important or not. All countries taking control of the outbreak have used extensive contact-tracking measures to maintain public safety during Covid-19. While most countries have agreed that the utilization of digital tools to keep track of health and location information is a crucial part of COVID-19 containment strategies, the people have been worried about a ‘privacy pandemic’ while in the COVID-19 pandemic. While most countries have taken on Coronavirus privacy in a pandemic seriously by scanning smartphones for contacts of affected people and publishing street numbers with infected people, U.S. has taken a step further by introducing drone surveillance Covid-19 for better information gathering.

With different contact-tracking applications, the citizens are more worried about the violation of information security laws and government surveillance interfering in personal liberty. While most people call for a balance in privacy vs. pandemic, the argument continues that although personal privacy is the fundamental right in a democratic society, public health and safety of a free community during a pandemic needs serious protection.

Balancing Individual Privacy with Public Safety- Report

In early March 2020, there was an absence of any guidelines or advisory from the Government; several companies had already moved or were planning to move to work from home facilities, conducted thermal screening, and checked recent travel histories of employees. Concerning these actions, employers were mandated to adhere to the basic principles of data protection and privacy laws to ensure that their actions do not cause any violation of the fundamental ‘right to privacy’ for their employees.

Below are some of the regulations and practices of the I.T. rules on the right to privacy:

  • While extending the benefits of ‘work from home’ to employees during the pandemic, ensure that the integrity of the client’s data is not compromised.
  • Employers should limit data collection to confirmed or suspected cases or those who have been in contact with such matters. This information should be collected for a clear purpose with the consent of the employee while restricting the collection of irrelevant data.
  • With the rise in the seriousness of the pandemic situation, employers are allowed to take the temperature of employees or other visitors only to grant access to enter the office premises. Organizations or the Government should not retain this data once the purpose is over.
  • No information collected should be disclosed without consent. However, given the seriousness and nature of the pandemic, disclosure of information in a specific situation may be justified. For example, access to such information can be allowed to the Government if they need to form policies or take corrective measures. Additionally, organizations can disclose the data for public safety during Covid-19or a genuine fear that the non-disclosure of collected information may worsen the present scenario. Besides such extreme scenarios, employers must ensure that they do not act outside such terms.
  • Once the situation is brought under control, and the virus is eradicated, the Government must ensure that the data collected for public safety during Covid-19 is destroyed. The organization must destroy any sensitive data collected for a specific purpose after the completion of their purpose. Utilizing the collected data for things it was not meant for is a strict violation of the privacy of individuals whose information is being used.
  • Organizations should refrain from collecting information from any individual who is not part of the organization.
  • Organizations should refrain from publishing sensitive personal data collected during the pandemic to the public or third parties.
  • Organizations should be generally mindful of the data protection and privacy principles while formulating policies concerning the collection and processing of the data, even in the absence of any guidelines from the Government.

Data Privacy vs. Pandemic Tackling Technological Mechanisms

The only strategies governments across the world have agreed upon to be an effective weapon against the pandemic are Containment and Lockdown. Many governments and international jurisdictions, including the USA, Europe, China, and many more, have also deployed technology-driven measurements to ensure public safety during Covid-19. These technology-driven measures provide rapid identification and quarantine of infected individuals, determine who they have had close contact with within the past few days or weeks, and the decontamination of the locations the infected person has visited. This entire process is achieved by tracking the locations, analyzing the data, thermal screening, contact tracing, and mass surveillance. The use of these technologies and approaches has raised potential questions on how the data collected directly or indirectly by the Government may affect the privacy of individuals.

While India does not have a data protection framework that can hold the Government accountable for data privacy violations, every action of the Government will have to comply with the scrutiny of the ‘right to privacy’ as a fundamental right. The lack of a data protection framework has raised concerns regarding the implementation of such technologies in India.

Meanwhile, in India, over 200 start-ups have collaborated to develop and launch an application Aarogya Setu, which is likely to act as a quarantine application and live-track patients and individuals tested positive and perform contact tracing based on that information. The application was launched in April 2020 and has recorded over 5 million downloads. It tracks the registrants’ vicinity as long as they share their location. Considering the app has access to the government database of known coronavirus cases, it can directly alert its registrants with a notification if they come in close contact with an infected person, even unknowingly. The application requires your name, age, and gender, and provides a self-assessment test that seeks answers to your profession, name, age, sex, last visited countries, and whether or not you are a smoker.

Conclusion

Alas, the dilemma of greater efficiency will come at the cost of deteriorated privacy. However, Balancing Individual Privacy with Public Safety is expected of the Government to regulate the access to data collected by the applications and maintain the anonymity of the data, decentralize its access, and refrain from the processing of the collected data beyond providing public safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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