March 20, 2020 | Jim Killock

In the Coronavirus crisis, privacy will be compromised—but our right to know must not be

At Open Rights Group (ORG), we want the government to succeed in its pursuit of the eradication of Coronvirus COVID-19. We know that means that government will want to use data to understand the impacts of its policies on the progress of the disease, and to anticipate what new measures it needs to take.


Other governments have had great success in doing this; we know a lot about the global response and measures taken elsewhere. Sometimes, however, these efforts have arguably overstepped the mark, for instance monitoring individuals in Israel. There is always a question of proportionality.

The interplay between privacy rights and the use of data here is quite clear: the government has a right and duty to use data in unanticipated ways to defeat the public health emergency. Both UK law and GDPR explain this quite clearly. In essence, data can be used, but data protection duties remain in place, such as data security, minimisation and fair processing.

These laws also anticipate [require] that the public will be informed about the changes that are taking place. This is not, in our view, a purely technical duty. The point of transparency, as everyday privacy expectations are changed, is to ensure that people trust the actions of the government as the reasons for accessing and using data are clear and can be shown to be necessary and proportionate to the threat.

From the other side of the equation, this prevents alarm, misinterpretation and false rumours.

As the government extends its intelligence about the virus through the use of personal data, the government has no real choice but to be transparent. There are only upsides from transparency: not merely reducing the risks of misunderstanding, but also building public confidence, as it explains the means by which it is getting ahead.

Thus it is striking how little we have heard at this point about the government's plans. Over the last two days, stories about use of mobile phone data have emerged, but not from the government. Rather, journalists have been tipped off and then run stories. 

Alarmingly, the government is still refusing to comment on its partnership with mobile companies. This does not show a government in control of its message, or clear in its purpose..

It is in our view extremely important that the government begins to explain how it wants to use personal data. We are sure it has a good story to tell. But it must not risk chipping away at public confidence in its strategy against COVID-19 by failing to do so.