Collecting personal data for the best of reasons – such as tackling the coronavirus pandemic – has triggered a wave of misgivings.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) has responded to growing concerns with a statement (10 March 2020) urging “a balance between collective good and civil liberties.” The EFF statement says:
“Across the world, public health authorities are working to contain the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019). In pursuit of this urgent and necessary task, many government agencies are collecting and analyzing personal information about large numbers of identifiable people, including their health, travel, and personal relationships. As our society struggles with how best to minimize the spread of this disease, we must carefully consider the way that ‘big data’ containment tools impact our digital liberties.”
The topic of digital privacy is not new. Digital technologies have been subject to scrutiny by civil society groups concerned at the intrusion by governments and corporate interests into private lives and at the potential misuse of personal data.
While noting that efforts by public health agencies and government entities to combat the spread of COVID-19 are warranted, the EFF says public policy must find a balance between collective good and civil liberties. “It is important, however, that any extraordinary measures used to manage a specific crisis must not become permanent fixtures in the landscape of government intrusions into daily life [or that they] to outlive their urgency.
The EFF calls for a firm commitment to the following principles:
- Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate.
- Data collection based on science not bias.
- Expiration of data.
- Transparency of usage.
- Due Process.
In times of humanitarian and natural disasters, people and communities need effective and trustworthy means of communication. Community media and digital technologies can provide ways for people to stay in touch as well as vital information that can save lives.
David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is on record as saying, “Human rights – its vocabulary, its framework, its vision – provides a basis for restraining the worst intrusions and violations of the digital world, and promoting its best.”
In this respect, open and equitable access to the digital sphere as well as digital privacy are key elements of today’s communication rights in practice.
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