Privacy vs. Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the world attempts to fight off the pandemic, some countries are using technology and collecting personal data to allow the public to have access to lifesaving information.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Emily Young-Squire

As we open our phones to sensationalized headlines and turn on our TV screens to breaking news during this uncertain time, we see and are disappointed by the poor response of some countries to the crisis at hand—our own included. The United States has failed to protect medical staff, provide enough testing kits, and produce enough ventilators for all the sick and dying to use. However, several other countries have fared significantly better during these trying times. Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, have utilized effective methods such as closing land borders, restricting travel, and creating testing kits in advance. But what sets apart these Asian countries most is their use of controversial methods, ones that ensure their citizens are protected during this crisis—even if at a personal cost.

This is one of the first pandemics in which governing bodies are given the choice to use technology as a weapon, and many are making use of that opportunity. Since our phones and internet usage are greater than ever, apps can be used to notify citizens where COVID-19 victims have been and at what times. Governments can use tracking devices to keep people from violating rules, and many countries that have digital infrastructure have also been able to use surveillance for authorities to collect data. These measures all allow people to be more well-informed about their communities during these times of crisis.

South Korea, for example, uses satellites and technology as part of an intense contact tracing and testing campaign. When each new case is confirmed, the government tracks down places the confirmed patient has been to as well as all the people they have interacted with. People who have interacted with the person are then tested and isolated. If another person also tests positive, the cycle continues. People living in the area are automatically alerted to places that infected citizens have been to via an app, allowing them to take special precautions and avoid those areas.

The country also plans to build a smart city database by requiring quarantined individuals to wear a tracking bracelet. The use of electronic bracelets intends to reduce the time spent finding those who are confirmed to be ill and yet still attempt to break quarantine laws. They do so by allowing investigators to collect data on a patient’s whereabouts, CCTV footage, and credit card transactions.

On the surface, these methods appear to have been extremely successful, allowing the country to effectively minimize the spread of the disease without having to enforce major lockdowns. In fact, several other countries have followed suit. The UK is using drones to monitor public areas to prevent residents from going there. Moscow used facial recognition technology to catch a Chinese woman who broke out of quarantine. Israel is using its Shin Bet intelligence unit, ordinarily reserved for terrorism, to track possible patients through telecom data.

But this marked success initially came with significant drawbacks. For years, the South Korean government has had an unstable relationship with its citizens. Half of all the living former South Korean presidents are currently in prison due to crimes ranging from embezzlement to corruption, and many are unhappy with how the government approached the pandemic because the country did not release all of their information to the general public. This was especially true at the beginning of the pandemic, when the government didn’t release information about which facilities COVID-19 patients were staying in. This already strained relationship between the people and government has been exacerbated by the new methods of tracking and testing, which allow a select few from the government to have access to everyone's personal information, leaving many ambivalent.

Since then, the government has been more transparent throughout the pandemic and has utilized techniques and methods that have proven highly effective. As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths decrease, the general public has become content with the success of the government’s efforts to “flatten the curve,” even if it means that the public loses some of its privacy in the process.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in the results of the 2020 South Korean election, which was held on April 15, 2020 and wherein the country saw a turnout of 66.2 percent, the highest turnout in a parliamentary election since 1992. The report also states that President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party won 180 of 300 seats in the National Assembly, marking the biggest win by any party since the current democratic constitution was created in 1987. This margin can likely be attributed to the effective response of the president and his party during the outbreak.

But the issue has proven more complicated in the United States and Europe, as many dislike the idea of the government invading their privacy by tracking their phones, while others believe that these measures are essential during times of crisis. And even if the issue weren’t this divisive, because of how large the U.S. is compared to countries like South Korea, it would be difficult for us to copy their exhaustive methods. Still, these techniques—like creating apps to notify locals of confirmed cases or forcing people to wear electrical tracking bracelets to prevent them from escaping quarantine—have their benefits. It comes down to a question of how willing the general public would be to give up some of their personal information in exchange for the greater good.

Though the methods that South Korea and other nations use are controversial and difficult to implement, the United States should still heavily consider all the benefits. An invasion of privacy may sound frightening, but in times like this, we need to prioritize the health of the masses over all else, even if it means sacrificing a little bit of our own privacy. South Korea was able to preserve its economy and national health while still maintaining the favor of the general public—and so can we.