Privacy and Pandemics

> Privacy and Pandemics

Global leaders are increasingly relying on information about individuals and communities to fight the spread of COVID-19 and respond to its economic, political, social, and health impacts. Time is of the essence, and leaders must quickly navigate essential questions about what personal information they will collect or disclose, to whom, and under what conditions. It is important that privacy concerns do not become a barrier to effective health and safety measures, but also that we do not open a door to lasting or limitless surveillance. In this series, Privacy and Pandemics, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) explores the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis to existing ethical, privacy, and data protection frameworks, and will seek to provide information and guidance to governments, companies, academics, and civil society organizations interested in responsible data sharing to support public health response.


The Future of Privacy Forum, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Privacy Tech Alliance, held a two day Privacy & Pandemics virtual workshop on October 27-28, 2020. At 10 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, what role has tech and data played in combating the crisis, what have we learned about limitations of law, policy and technical tools, and what areas need reform and additional research?

Wiki: COVID-19 Privacy & Data Protection Resources

FPF has compiled a repository of privacy and data protection resources from around the world related to COVID-19. The repository was developed to help privacy leaders in local government and beyond provide front-line support to individuals and communities. The resource repository will be updated on a regular basis and includes U.S. privacy resources; international privacy resources; civil liberties and ethical best practices; and security, technical tools, and emerging solutions.

FPF Posts

Digital Contact Tracing Technologies: Principles, Framework, and Full Proceedings (July 2021)
FPF, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation worked with Mental Health America, Dialogue on Diversity, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Alliance Against Disparities in Patient Health (NADPH), BrightHive, and LGBT Tech to develop actionable principles along with a detailed framework to support the responsible implementation of digital contact tracing technologies.

Thermal Imaging as Pandemic Exit Strategy: Limitations, Use Cases and Privacy Implications (June 3)
Around the world, governments, companies, and other entities are either using or planning to rely on thermal imaging as an integral part of their strategy to reopen economies. In this post, we map out the leading technologies and products used for thermal imaging, review the key technical limitations of thermal scanning as described in scientific literature, and summarize the chief concerns articulated by privacy and civil rights advocates.

Artificial Intelligence and the COVID-19 Pandemic (May 7)
Machine learning-based technologies are playing a substantial role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts are using machine learning to study the virus, test potential treatments, diagnose individuals, analyze the public health impacts, and more. Below, we describe some of the leading efforts and identify data protection and ethical issues related to machine learning and COVID-19, with a particular focus on apps directed to health care professionals that leverage audio-visual data, text analysis, chatbots, and sensors.

European Union’s Data-Based Policy Against the Pandemic, Explained (April 30)
Benefitting from a mature and largely harmonized data protection legal framework, the European Union and its Member States are taking policymaking steps towards a pan-European approach to enlisting data and technology against the spread of COVID-19 and to support the gradual restarting of the economy. This post contains an overview of key recent events essential to understand EU’s data-based approach against the pandemic.

Online Learning Best Practices for Schools and Educators (April 16)
As school buildings around the country close in order to protect the health of students, families, staff, and their larger communities, many schools are rapidly shifting instruction to online platforms. During this transition, it’s critical to take steps to protect students’ data.

FPF Provides Senate Testimony on Strategies to Mitigate Privacy Risks of Using Data to Combat COVID-19 (April 9)
Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) Senior Counsel Stacey Gray provided the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with written testimony, including recommendations based on how experts in the U.S. and around the world are currently mitigating the risks of using data to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

FPF Charts the Role of Mobile Apps in Pandemic Response (April 3)
Multiple apps and software development kits (SDK) have been deployed to help both private and public entities tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to better understand these technologies, the Future of Privacy Forum has created a comparison chart to contrast the objectives and methods of specific apps and SDKs.

Privacy and Pandemics: A Thoughtful Discussion (March 27)
On March 26, FPF convened a Virtual Workshop with a dozen ethicists, academics, government officials, and corporate leaders, and over 100 corporate attendees, to discuss responsible data sharing in times of crisis. Participants discussed how recent “data for good” initiatives have informed data sharing during the crisis, concerns about data sharing in a time of low trust, lessons learned from past pandemics, how to effectively protect privacy and civil liberties, and what the COVID-19 pandemic means for the future of data sharing between companies, academics, and governments. 

A Closer Look at Location Data: Privacy and Pandemics (March 25)
Harnessing location data held by major tech companies can help track individuals affected by coronavirus or send alerts to individuals who might be affected based on their previous proximity to known cases. This post outlines the ethical and privacy concerns surrounding the use of location data, in addition to an explanation on what location data is, who holds it, and how it’s collected.

FPF and AASA Release Student Privacy Guidance to Help Schools Manage COVID-19 Response (March 20)
This white paper offers guidance to help K-12 and higher education administrators and educators protect student privacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper reviews how FERPA and HIPAA govern the disclosure of students’ health information held by schools. Consent is usually required before disclosing personal information, but both laws have exceptions when disclosures are made to protect the health or safety of others in an emergency.

EU DPAs Issue Green and Red Lights for Processing Health Data During the COVID-19 Epidemic (March 10)
As Europe grapples with an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases, some European Data Protection Authorities have issued public interest guidance on the limits of collecting, sharing and using personal data relating to health.

FPF Events

Privacy & Pandemics: The Role of Mobile Apps Workshop (April 6)
Privacy & Pandemics: Corporate Data Sharing Workshop (March 26)

ITPI Posts

FPF’s affiliate organization Israel Tech Policy Institute (ITPI) developed the below posts pertaining to the coronavirus crisis.

Using Digital Means to Fight Coronavirus (March 15)
On March 16 Israel’s government has adopted a resolution and on March 17 approved Emergency Regulations which allow the General Security Services (SHABAK) to monitor the location of the mobile devices owned by COVID-19 patients and people who interacted with them in the 14 days before being confirmed with the virus. The stated purpose of the monitoring is to notify the confirmed and suspected patients with a text message that they need to go into home quarantine and to enforce the quarantine obligation. The specific process will be determined by the Health Ministry and approved by the Attorney General.

The Crowned Virus: COVID-19 (March 12)
Grappling with COVID-19 is a complicated, multipronged battle with local, national, and global implications. It has to be waged on several fronts simultaneously: healthcare, economics, and foreign policy. Challenges of this scale call for inventive use of technology to help in developing various solutions.