Individual freedom vs.
Public health in the age of pandemic

Individual freedom vs. Public health in the age of pandemic

The conflict between the individual’s rights to freedom and privacy and the defense of the common interests of society, as defined and enforced by the state, is usually an ideologically driven debate.

The use of geolocalisation apps by governments to track coronavirus cases has made the discussion a matter of life and death.

Coronavirus and its social, medical, political and economic consequences may be enough to end the debate between proponents of large and small government in its current form. The debate will hopefully become less ideological as governments in a state of crisis are dedicated only to fighting a global pandemic, protecting the hundreds of millions who have lost their incomes, or tackling the deep, global recession that is likely to result: ensuring minimal government interference does work well for some problems. It is completely useless for others. We will need to learn to react according to the demands of each situation, rather than following a set ideological stance just for the sake of it. Principles are important and should not be surrendered lightly. But they need to be updated to take account of a world that no-one was predicting six months ago.

The European Commission has been pressing telephone companies to provide anonymous, aggregate data on location to help understand the spread of the pandemic. Apple and Google are also cooperating to build an automated contact-tracing system. Few would argue that such initiatives are not valuable in seeking to protect public health. Yet the idea that the state will gain further powers to look into our private lives is legitimately disturbing for many.

Much depends on where you live: in the US, privacy protection is less thorough than in Europe, and some companies are known to have sold location data for advertising targeting. Data in the US is bundled under pseudonyms, and is not aggregated. So the step to being able to identify and track a specific individual is much smaller.

Many Asian countries have gone even further: South Korea has been tracking phones and creating a publicly available map to let people check whether they may have crossed paths with coronavirus sufferers. In Hong Kong, maps of the buildings where cases have been reported are publicly available. These moves may be jarring to a liberal perspective – but the infection rates per million inhabitants in South Korea and Hong Kong, despite their proximity to China, are much lower than in the West.

State accountability

Of course, traditional surveillance such as through police patrols and closed-circuit TV is still the main way of checking whether confinement restrictions are being observed. Anyone who is worried about being geo-localised can simply leave their phone at home.

Pandemics are no respecters of rights, even ones that are legally enshrined. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we came to accept – and pay for – levels of airport security that many would have considered intrusive and overbearing before 2001. We will probably have to accept that life after coronavirus will never be the same again and that the state will be watching more closely than ever. And we will be paying for it. In such an environment, it will be more important than ever to hold the state to account, and ensure that it’s rapidly developing levers of surveillance are not misused. A breakdown of trust in the use of state power to observe our every movement will leave us even more exposed than we are now. The use of new surveillance powers needs to be transparent and based on consent – rather than appearing as automatic and without consultation. It also needs to be adapted to national contexts. Every country has its own culture, traditions and red lines beyond which no political leader can go.

Digital Certificates of Immunity

Some countries are considering the possibility of a digital certificate of immunity. A growing number of people in all countries have been exposed to coronavirus without becoming ill, or even noticing, because they were able to produce the required antibodies. At least at present, these people are effectively immune to coronavirus.

In a normal flu epidemic, this process of collective immunization would normally be enough to draw the spread of the illness to a close: most epidemics end when about half of the population has become immune as there are not enough people left to spread it. In the case of COVID 19, waiting for such collective immunity to emerge would involve an unthinkable death toll.

Hence, for want of a better solution, confinement. Yet the immunity is still developing and digital tools can be used to mobilise it.

A test for immunity, which could be digitally integrated into a digital passport or ID card, is one of the few plausible avenues available for bringing an end to confinement and its huge economic costs. The only real alternative is simply to wait for a vaccination which may take months to develop, test and distribute at scale. The holder of such a digitalized immunity certificate would be able to return to work and travel freely without risk of being infected. That could mean the difference for organisations of all kinds between remaining in prolonged paralysis and gradually returning to operational status.

International cooperation

Standardisation of tests between countries, meaning detailed international cooperation which will only be possible through digital tools, will be necessary, both for this pandemic and the crises of the future.

Of course, the science involved is not so simple. Tests for immunity are not yet completely reliable, and we are unsure as to how long even proven immunity would last. The virus may be capable of further mutations that would quickly make such immunity illusory. 

But progress in developing a test for immunity that will last is likely to be quicker than waiting for a vaccination to be developed. Whatever the final solution to the quandary of confinement, the chances are that digital integration of health records, including vaccination history and immunological status, into digital passports and ID documents, will be a lasting consequence of coronavirus.

The consequences for personal privacy are likely to be far-reaching. Civil society must find new ways to hold the state accountable. Yet it seems hard to argue that the defence of privacy should override considerations of public health. As the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued nearly 400 years ago in The Leviathan, failure to submit to state authority will indeed increase the risk of life in the future being nasty, brutish and short.