In a span of weeks, the novel coronavirus has turned the nation’s roiling health privacy debate on its head. Concerns about what Google and Facebook might be doing with patients’ sensitive health information have receded, and instead, Americans are being asked to allow surveillance of their daily movements and contacts, and even their temperature and other physiological changes.
By tapping into people’s phones and medical records, researchers and public health authorities are hoping to more swiftly identify and isolate potentially infected patients and corral a pandemic that is outrunning them despite unprecedented restrictions on daily life.
Underscoring the urgency, the federal agency in charge of policing data breaches is now saying it will back off enforcement of certain privacy rules to make it easier for hospitals and their vendors to share patient medical records with public health officials. Meanwhile, the nation’s tech behemoths are collecting health information through Covid-19 symptom checkers, data that could prove invaluable to disease trackers when combined with travel and location data from smartphones.
“There are times that not using the information that we have is morally hard to defend, and I think this is one of them,” said Michelle Mello, a health law professor at Stanford University.
Will we accept the erosion of privacy as the price of vigilance against new viruses, in the same way we traded personal freedoms after the 9/11 attacks?