Poli-ticks

Is there an upcoming battle between public health and privacy?

By Arlene Violet
Posted 5/22/20

Recently, there was a kerfuffle in Illinois over a proposed resolution that would allow the disclosure of one’s COVID-19 status to first responders, including police officers, firefighters and …

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Poli-ticks

Is there an upcoming battle between public health and privacy?

Posted

Recently, there was a kerfuffle in Illinois over a proposed resolution that would allow the disclosure of one’s COVID-19 status to first responders, including police officers, firefighters and rescue, and non-governmental folks like ambulance drivers. The argument was that by knowing the addresses of people tested positive they would then know how much protective clothing and gear to wear in case they were summoned to the address. Folks who opposed the measure not only included those who have what they perceive as a strained relationship, particularly with law enforcement because of their minority or immigrant status, but also those who insisted on confidentiality rights as to their medical status. Why, they mused, should external people know of their health issues, particularly if they were not going to use these services? Shouldn’t first responders, anyway, dress appropriately in any event during such a crisis without resorting to stigmatizing?

In reading the above paragraph, you probably took a position on which argument should prevail. Your response probably heralds your reaction to COVID-19 tracing apps to assist contract tracing as businesses and commerce open up. Governments, including Rhode Island, want to minimize the pandemic spread by being able to track a positive person’s interactions, and prevent further contagion by quarantining those with whom he/she has come in contact. Right now, contract tracing is done by a system where the sick person reports his contacts and a troop of people follow-up with calls and subsequent checking on those exposed to make sure they are tested and quarantined. The app cuts down time and personnel since it would record contacts and can actually follow the sick person and contacts thereafter. Use of the app is supposed to be voluntary so it doesn’t implicate constitutional issues.

The question for society, nonetheless, even if voluntary, is what is the cost ultimately for privacy rights?

Supporters of this smart phone technology scoff at objectors by arguing that Google and Apple already know more about a person than any government would. The horse is already out of the barn. Also, the information would only be held at the department of health, unlike a company like Facebook that sells your preferences now.

Of course, the invasion into privacy is well underway. Camera surveillance is rampant and justified as a response to another “evil’ in society, i.e. terrorism. Camera footage is widely used to catch felons whether they are robbing a store or fleeing as they go through a toll. Many international cities as well monitor the cameras to search for suspicious or unlawful behavior. Many businesses require access to employee emails and files as well as tracking the productivity of a worker‘s work habits.

One thing is for certain and that is that the public is on the brink of opening up a new chapter in privacy intrusion. Contract tracing, by definition, is invasive. Who have you been near? When were you near them and where?

Are you ready to invest in the disclosure of this information in order to open commerce? Is it altruistic to allow the disclosure of this information for the good of society? Just as in the past the 9/11 tragedy opened Pandora’s Box to privacy invasion, is this access ever going to go away? Decide!

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.