The Public Good Requires Private Data

This essay appeared as part of a round table on "How the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Permanently Expand Government Powers."

There’s been a fundamental battle in Western societies about the use of personal data, one that pits the individual’s right to privacy against the value of that data to all of us collectively. Until now, most of that discussion has focused on surveillance capitalism. For example, Google Maps shows us real-time traffic, but it does so by collecting location data from everyone using the service.

COVID-19 adds a new urgency to the debate and brings in new actors such as public health authorities and the medical sector. It’s not just about smartphone apps tracing contacts with infected people that are currently being rolled out by corporations and governments around the world. The medical community will seize the pandemic to boost its case for accessing detailed health data to perform all sorts of research studies. Public health authorities will push for more surveillance in order to get early warning of future pandemics. It’s the same trade-off. Individually, the data is very intimate. But collectively, it has enormous value to us all.

Resolving the debate means careful thinking about each specific case and a moral analysis of how the issues involved affect our core values. The answers for law enforcement, social networks, and medical data won’t be the same. As we move toward greater surveillance, we need to figure out how to get the best of both: how to design systems that make use of our data collectively to benefit society as a whole, while at the same time protecting people individually.

Categories: Privacy and Surveillance

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.