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.
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