sharing private data to save lives – an urgent debate society needs today

How much sensitive personal data would you be willing to share if it could help Governments to react to, or even anticipate, future pandemic outbreaks? It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.

Clearly, the data held by tech companies would be useful in understanding how viruses emerge and spread. What symptoms patients experience at different stages of illness. Of how the behaviours and self-treatments of patients speed or hinder recovery. Of how sectors of society are responding to quarantine.

Data rich in insight on all of these points, and more, is collected each and every day by tech giants such as Google and Facebook, your broadband and mobile network providers, and a broad range of retailers.

Your geographic movements, purchases, tweets… variations in the sound of your voice as you activate your personal assistant, the fluidity of your steps as measured by your mobile phone’s accelerometer – each data point is an opportunity to better understand the interface between our behaviour and an emerging virus or disease.

Indeed, the UK Government recognises this and has invited experts from some of these companies to sit on it’s Covid-19 advisory board.

Data collected from mobile networks was key to Korea’s response to the current crisis – a response which is thought to have been highly successful in keeping the spread of Covid-19 under much closer control than in most other countries. At the same time, many privacy groups have voiced concerns that the data – shared with those who had come into contact with potential sources of infection – was far too revealing.

The UK National Health Service (NHS) is said to be close to releasing a Contact Tracing App that essentially does the same thing although it remains to be seen what level of anonymity it will offer to users.

How data is collected, stored and processed is far from being a new topic of debate. It is, however, a debate that’s worthy of particular attention at this moment in time as Governments and health officials seek out new ways of predicting and preventing the pandemics of today and of the future. How much private data are you willing to reveal if it might protect the lives of others? What if there was a serious risk that this data could be used against you or the people you care about, in ways not yet understood?

There are many tough decisions ahead when it comes to personal data. Decisions which, I hope, receive the scrutiny they deserve from politicians, media and individuals rather than the urgent wave of hand that so often accompanies decisions made in urgent situations such as we face today. Where would you draw the line?

(Image Licensed: Envato)