Crises change us. For better or for worse. And often for longer periods of time than we imagine. We simply don’t go back to the ways things were. We also often make changes in the midst of the crisis which we believe help us get through it.
So we change laws to try to help. We suspend certain individual privileges for the ‘benefit’ of the community. However, often the laws we create in a crisis stick around much longer than we intended or think they will. Think about liquids in your hand luggage. As Yuval Noah Harari says:
Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.https://amp.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75
So how do we navigate this? How do we avoid creating another crisis in the midst of the current one?
Yuval’s article gives us lots to think about. Elizabeth provides helpful principles to consider. “These principles — legality, necessity, and proportionality — are among the core principles rooted in international human rights law and jurisprudence. They are always relevant, including, and perhaps especially, in emergencies.”
So, yes, we can suspend individual privacy rights to enable the tracking of people infected with Covid-19. All the technology exists. It is quite simple really. The tech is the easy bit. The hard bit is dealing scaling a health system to use the information the tracing would provide. The hard bit is getting more beds, more ventilators, and sorting out the power struggles in organisations. And the hardest bit of all in a public health emergency is communication to the general public.
Stripping down individual privacy rights so we track infected people can provide us with very useful information. Theoretically. However, if we can’t act on the information, is it actually useful?
Stripping down individual privacy rights also has the potential to increase harms. So if we can’t act on the information we propose, but it increases people’s potential exposure to harm, is it wise?
And as history shows us and Yuval reminds us, once emergency powers are granted, they have a habit of sticking around. There always is another potential pandemic around the corner….