In Fight Against Coronavirus, Governments Face Trade-Offs on Privacy

Published on by Coindesk | Published on

After draconian measures were implemented in China to halt the rapid infection rate of the virus, including movement restrictions, large scale surveillance and forced isolation, it seems such measures are working, with new cases in China declining.

Those same measures are unlikely to be adopted in the U.S., but the government and employers across the nation will have to navigate complex questions regarding privacy and public health in the coming months.

"It is telling that at this point, public health experts are not calling for any of these measures; they have been clear that the tactics that will be most useful are social distancing and good hygiene like careful hand-washing and disinfecting," says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, at NYU School of Law."China has implemented surveillance tools at odds with core American values like freedom to speak, to travel and to assemble. Coronavirus - while undeniably a public health emergency - should not become an excuse to institute tools that would undermine those values."

Kathryn Waldron, a cybersecurity fellow at the R Street Institute, a think tank that promotes free markets and limited government, is skeptical we'll see the rollout of surveillance technology in the U.S. on the same scale as China.

Second, Americans are less likely to allow wide-scale government surveillance on the scale of China.

"China's Social Credit Score system already used facial recognition technology and nearly omnipresent surveillance to manage people's daily lives and individuals with insufficient scores have already been denied the ability to travel on occasion, long before COVID-19 was a threat. Rolling out additional surveillance measures now isn't radically new behavior."

Under regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration plus laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act, HIPAA, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, among others, employers must respect staff privacy and other rights.

"One way to balance these competing demands is to employ general measures that don't require invasive questioning or interference with individual employees," she says.

They should not be discussing any individual employee's health condition or personal circumstances with other employees or third parties, except under limited circumstances where they might encourage the impacted employee to seek assistance from medical providers or public health authorities.

"Employees do not surrender all of their privacy rights in a crisis."