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Covid-19: Privacy and ethics

Governments across the world have chosen various strategies to combat Covid-19. However, some of these news rules and regulations may seem to encroach on our privacy. ULaw Tutor and HEA Fellow Mike Butler looks at the conundrum of our fiercely guarded right to privacy versus technological advances which can save lives in the Covid-19 era.

The UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many fault lines in our legal, ethical and cultural frameworks. One of these is privacy.

The shortcomings of the UK’s track and trace system are well documented. In comparison, the efficacy of South Korea’s approach to the pandemic has been much lauded. Yet this approach has used law enforcement methods normally used to track criminals. This has included tracking an individual’s credit and debit card transactions and obtaining phone location logs to get an accurate view of a person’s location, not simply relying on Bluetooth connections.  

Campaigners have criticised the intrusions into privacy from these methods. But South Korea serves as a useful comparator to the UK as both countries have similar populations, high population density and a highly urbanised society. Even allowing for cultural and underlying health variations (such as obesity), the comparison in the figures is stark: As of 25 January 2021, over 97,939 Covid-19 deaths in the UK; 1,360 deaths in South Korea.

While we grapple with the privacy ramifications of effective tracking systems for public health, at the same time, we have been prepared to accept an unprecedented amount of regulation affecting our daily lives. The government has laid a staggering 304 Coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments (SI) before Parliament. Over half of the “made negative” procedure SIs have not complied with the usual parliamentary scrutiny rules and yet these rules have intruded into our private lives in an extraordinary fashion.

There is mounting evidence of non-compliance with this welter of regulation as the pandemic drags on. This has resulted in increased levels of fines set by the state and, since October, the police and local councils receiving an additional £60 million to step up their enforcement of coronavirus laws.

We have a conundrum: a raft of laws which directly affect our private lives where compliance is diminishing; yet an unwillingness to appraise – deeply - our ethical views underpinning our right to privacy even where that may be in our overall best interests as a society.

As lawyers, we spend most of our training learning about laws per se and their interpretation. Covid-19 highlights the need to consider our laws alongside our ethical frameworks which underpin these laws. Privacy concepts are rooted in a Western tradition which places a premium on autonomy and against an historical backdrop of state misuse of private information; this contrasts with cultural traditions which emphasise community as a central ethical component.

The University of Law’s MSc Legal Tech looks at these issues in its Techno-ethics course. It considers the ethical underpinnings of laws such as Article 8 ECHR with a focus on new technology (eg facial recognition technology). Privacy concerns are heightened with the advent of new technology - think next of “Covid passports” and the tracking this requires - and we need to examine our ethical frameworks as much as our laws when considering these dilemmas.


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