The Covid-19 global health crisis may alter the future of data privacy in the name of public safety. According to published reports, the US government is in talks with tech companies that include Facebook and Google along with health experts. The discussions concern how to use smartphone location data to combat the novel coronavirus, also known as Covid-19. The discussion also includes tracking whether citizens are keeping a safe distance to stop the virus from spreading.
The discussions come as big tech are been under fire from US regulators. They have pressured companies like Facebook and Google to become more transparent in their data collection practices. The suggestion is that they may be regulated. Now, in light of a global pandemic, public-health experts are interested in the possibility that these same companies could compile data in anonymous, aggregated forms to map the spread of the virus.
It’s a move that demonstrates just how desperate the US government is to slow down the pandemic. It’s also a move that could result in Americans fearing the government will be tracking their daily whereabouts.
Cellphone tracking of Covid-19
Meanwhile, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized Israel’s internal security agency to use cellphone location data to help stem the coronavirus for the next 30 days. The geolocation data will be used to trace the movement of citizens who test positive for the virus. It will also be used to identify people who should be quarantined. The government will direct people via text to quarantine themselves immediately if they have come in contact with infected individuals. The move has spurred debate about the legal and ethical implications of the government tracking its citizens.
Employers and the complicated issue of data protection
Data protection during a global pandemic has become a complicated issue. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy. While health data is highly protected under GDPR and requires explicit consent, a subsection of the law allows for the use of personal information without consent if it is needed to protect “against serious cross-border threats to health.”
Employers are faced with a delicate balance to protect personal information while battling a pandemic. It’s new ground that European regulators have attempted to provide guidance on. While employers are not allowed to take their workers’ temperatures, they are allowed to ask them if they’ve been infected, have visited high-risk areas or been in contact with infected people. How long employers are allowed to keep this information and what they should do with it when the risk is over, will be another debate.
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