WHO’s Dr Michael Ryan raises privacy concerns arising from coronavirus tech

27 Mar 2020

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Dr Michael Ryan of the WHO said that while using technology to tackle the coronavirus pandemic is crucial, data privacy can’t be ignored.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic across the world, companies and researchers have raced to develop new testing kits, screening technologies and other measures to limit its spread.

However, speaking this week during a virtual press briefing, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) health emergencies programme, warned that despite the urgency, people’s right to digital privacy cannot be overlooked.

Future Human

He said this is likely the first pandemic of the 21st century in which “the full power of information technology, social media, AI is being applied to almost every aspect of this response”.

“We do always have to have in the back of our minds – especially when it comes to collecting information on individual citizens or tracking their whereabouts or movements – that there are always very serious data protection, human rights principles that are involved,” he said.

“We’re very, very cognisant of that and we want to ensure that all products that are developed are done in the most sensitive way possible and that we never step beyond the principles of individual freedoms, rights for individuals and for society.”

Ryan welcomed the fact that the WHO has received app ideas from people as young as 14, describing these efforts as the “most amazing outpouring of support and collaboration that I have seen in my career”.

‘Coronavirus is pushing us over the edge’

Many nations have started to deploy technology to track the movement of their citizens since the outbreak. According to CNBC, people in China have seen CCTV equipment being deployed outside their homes, as well as new digital barcodes being released on mobile apps that detail a person’s health status.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher of China at Human Rights Watch, said: “Coronavirus is pushing us over the edge and … perhaps institutionalising these systems and, in addition, making general public to become more accepting of these more intrusive measures.”

The Irish Data Protection Commission published guidelines earlier this month on the importance of data protection and legal framework for employers and others in response to the coronavirus.

“Data protection law does not stand in the way of the provision of healthcare and the management of public health issues; nevertheless there are important considerations which should be taken into account when handling personal data in these contexts, particularly health and other sensitive data,” it said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic