Coronavirus: Privacy in a pandemic

These are strange times. Germany, perhaps the most privacy conscious nation on earth, is considering a mobile phone app that would trace the contacts of anyone infected with Covid-19.

Earlier this week the British Prime Minister shared a picture of an online Cabinet meeting, complete with the Zoom meeting ID and the usernames of ministers. And millions of us are sharing views of our kitchens over this and other video-conferencing apps, without apparently being too concerned about poor privacy controls.

Meanwhile, the National Health Service in England has sent out a document that appears to mark a shift in its policy on patient data, giving staff more latitude to share information relating to the coronavirus. In particular, it mentions the use of data to understand trends in the spread and impact of the virus and "and the management of patients with or at risk of Covid-19 including: locating, contacting, screening, flagging and monitoring such patients".

In other words, hospital staff and GPs, who until now may have been cautious almost to the point of paranoia about data protection, can chill out a little.

As someone who has previously been asked by my optician to take pictures on my phone of an eye scan and take them to a hospital doctor because they were not permitted to email them, the new policy seems sensible.

So are we becoming more relaxed about privacy because of the pandemic, or are we in danger of allowing governments and corporations to trample over our rights using the excuse of the emergency?

The former Portuguese Europe Minister Bruno Macaes, now a writer and commentator, made it clear where he stands in this startling tweet:

The idea that any concern about privacy in the battle against the virus is not only irrelevant but could prove fatal is at one extreme of this argument.

At the other are some privacy campaigners, who appear to think that any form of monitoring people with the virus risks the creation of a surveillance state.

We can see this battle playing out in the debate over the contact-tracing apps now being considered by a number of European countries, including the UK.

A press conference with a consortium of European scientists aiding their development began with a clear declaration about putting privacy at their core.

Hans-Christian Boos, an AI entrepreneur and adviser to Chancellor Merkel, is one of the initiative's leaders.

He said one of the motivating factors was to address the question: "Can we really build proximity-tracing while preserving privacy completely?"