Analysing responses to Covid-19

person wearing mask in the dark looking at phone

Data can be essential and useful at various stages of a pandemic and public health emergency. It can also feed intelligence and policing, being highly useful for enforcement. Finally, it can be valuable for commercial exploitation. The challenge before us now is which of these do we prioritise in specific settings.

In the context of Covid-19, our understanding is that:

  • in early stages of dealing with the pandemic, quick and effective contact tracing is invaluable to curb the spread, therefore knowing who people interacted with and where (interaction, proximity, and location data)
  • in the delay phase, tracing is not the highest priority and instead social distancing is more valued, and data can be used to monitor, develop policy, and for authorities enforce (location data becomes the priority)
  • generally tracking the use of public health resources is useful to allocate resources effectively, e.g. where should ventilators and masks and test be deployed (this is mostly logistics and health data held by hospitals and other health providers)
  • in the later phases, contact tracing may again be valuable, as can the use of enforcement mechanisms (interaction, proximity, and location data).

Data and technologies play different roles at each of these stages. But different levels of data and types of technologies too; and different legal and technical safeguards as well may apply.

PI has been tracking the developments across the world and is trying to differentiate between the various forms of health surveillance, policing, commercial exploitation (and some attempts at legitimisation), and surveillance opportunism.

If governments and industry had been more attentive to legality, security, and privacy in the run up to this crisis, everyone could have more confidence in the deployment of new measures. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is thus difficult to separate ambition from necessary response; desirable graphing from social graphing; health surveillance from policing surveillance; health and safety from workplace surveillance.

Key Resources

Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world.

15 Jul 2020
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement service announced in July that the State Department will not issue visas to students whose universities shift to online-only learning and they must leave the country or face deportation. More than 1 million higher education students in the US come from
07 Jul 2020
The New Zealand MP Hamish Walker, a member of the centre-right opposition National party, admitted leaking the details of all the country’s 18 active COVID-19 cases to the media in order to “expose the government’s shortcoming”. Walker said he had been advised that his actions were not illegal. The
05 Jul 2020
New US federal data released by the CDC in response to freedom of information requests show striking racial and ethnic disparities in all parts of the country in who gets infected and hospitalised with coronavirus. A survey of 640,000 infections in nearly 1,000 US counties found that Latino and
30 Jun 2020
After ORG asked questions via its legal representative, AWO’s Ravi Naik, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care agreed to change the period it would retain Test and Trace data from 20 years to eight. Public Health England manager Yvonne Doyle explained that the novelty of COVID-19 was the
20 Jul 2020
In early July the Open Rights Group issued a pre-action legal letter to UK health secretary Matt Hancock and the Department of Health and Social Care saying they have breached requirements under the Data Protection Act 2018 and GDPR by failing to conduct an impact assessment for the Test and Trace
24 Jun 2020
The October 2019 Presidential Decree 98/2019 granted the Hellenic Police the option of using drones in policing and border management for broad purposes; previously they were limited to using them for purposes such as preventing forest fires or helping rescue people after a natural disaster or an
08 Jul 2020
Israel’s initial success in curbing the spread of the coronavirus in April was followed in June by a surge in cases that government advisers blamed on insufficient resources for ministries to implement an effective trace-and-trace programme and increase testing to the level that would show clearly
Key Resources

Immunity passports could involve the restricting peoples' liberties of individuals on the basis of their' immunity status, or lack of it.

Press release

Today Privacy International and four other UK privacy organisations have sent Palantir 10 questions about their work with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) during the Covid-19 public health crisis.

News & Analysis

We’re part of a coalition asking data protection authorities, policymakers, edtech providers, and educators to take the following steps to protect children around the world.


The EU urgently needs to step up and provide assistance to protect the health and safety of people trapped in camps on the Greek islands: our briefing to the European Parliament.

News & Analysis

Marking International Health Day amidst a global pandemic gives us a chance to reflect on how we are responding to Covid-19 through the use of data and technology.

News & Analysis

Companies all over the world are pitching data products, services & solutions to Coronavirus - from big tech to companies that might not be household names but PI has long challenged for their exploitative data practices. Here we set out examples and the key points for companies to consider.

Key Resources

Quarantining is a significant interference with rights, which is why it is only recommended to be done under the advisement of health professionals. Using tech and data to do this can be particularly problematic.

Key Resources

Considering the billions of people who have smart phones generally use apps on these devices, it's possible to reach people and draw extensive data from their devices.

Key Resources

Telecommunications firms, including mobile operators, have extensive data on their customers, including location and contact data -- they and governments are keen to exploit this data.