Blown To Bits

Privacy and Swine Flu

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The swine flu panic is going to be electronically mediated in a way no previous threat to public health has been. Flu information sites have sprung up in which news stories and data are being aggregated — the Flu Wiki Forum and Wikia’s Flu Wiki, which has a nice Google map mashup showing where the cases are.

The intrepid and slightly paranoid (I know he won’t mind my saying so) Chris Soghoian has another angle in his post on Swine Flu and the Threat to Privacy. Eight students from one New York City school are suspected of having contracted this strain of influenza while on a school trip to Mexico. If they were suspected terrorists, the government would by this time have gotten their cell phone carriers to turn over lists of all the people they had telephoned recently. It would be easy enough — yes, this is true — to ask the carriers to turn over lists of the names of all people with cell phones that had been within 100 feet of one of the students’ cell phones during their Mexico trip or thereafter. Now stored cell phone geolocation information isn’t that precise, so the data request would probably yield a lot of false positives — people in the same general area but not that close.

The information may well have been collected already. And that may well be exactly the right thing to do. After all, the first rule of epidemics is that controlling them becomes exponentially harder if they are allowed to spread; you don’t wait until they are severe before reacting. Do we know? If the data has been collected, do we have any confidence that it isn’t going to be repurposed, and that it will be discarded eventually?

3 Responses to “Privacy and Swine Flu”

  1. Jeff Collier Says:

    wrt the repurposing of the collected data: If it happens (when, some would surely say, and it would be hard for me to argue…) I think we should visit that question separately. If that “repurposing” isn’t already illegal, then let’s make it so and prosecute the offenders.

    But let’s not handcuff the hands that really are trying to help stem a pandemic and save scores, if not more, lives. There are limits to privacy, and this seems to be a bright line. Certainly officials would have used such data in the past if it were available.

    Perhaps in addition to making repurposing illegal, the first person arrested using such data should assert medical privilege. No, I didn’t hire the CDC as my doctor, but if I make statements to a random doctor who assists me at an accident scene, I expect that it would privileged. If they got my data, then they are working to help me, ergo privilege should apply.

    wrt paranoia: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you. And when everyone is out to get you, paranoia is just good thinking…

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