Thinking creatively about COVID-19

Lilian Edwards gave a fascinating keynote at the UK IGF this morning, on Protecting Digital Rights During a Pandemic. Though privacy is the most often discussed right in the context of pandemic response, rights of free speech and free assembly also need to be borne in mind.

Although the impact of national schemes (contact tracing apps, etc.) has been widely discussed, how we respond to the virus in re-opening workplaces may be at least as significant for individual rights: not least because employers can invoke a wider range of permissions from data protection law. Will our response to COVID-19 accelerate an existing trend towards workplace surveillance, through the re-purposing of existing sensors and controls such as CCTV, swipecards and smartphones? Might employers feel justified in compelling employees to run, and provide access to, a location-recording app to gain entry to the office? Or, might some even refuse access to those who have chosen to run a social distancing app? What are the effects on our rights – and those of family and visitors – if employers insist on extending these into our off-work time, or our homeworking space? Or can we use the pandemic as an opportunity to demonstrate good practice in how we choose our purposes and technologies?

Considering university campuses as a possible testbed for developing good practice, it’s clear that there are many options to choose from (all these examples have appeared in the press in recent weeks). Even slight modifications to how we think about purpose could make new technological available, and have significant benefits for rights. For example, rather than individual testing to pick up early signs of an outbreak – which affects privacy and uses testing resources inefficiently – could samples be pooled before analysis? If students are expected to live and learn together, it doesn’t matter which member of a “study bubble” tests positive: all need to isolate anyway. Or could we test wastewater and avoid bodily intrusion entirely? If we think of social distancing as an issue about spaces, rather than about people, then many more sensors become available: blurred CCTV images can be effectively anonymous, but still let us measure the distance between bodies; even atmospheric CO2 level might be used to detect when there are more people in a space than is safe. Now we can avoid discriminating against the 1-in-6 students who does not have a smartphone, leave those who do have one with a free choice how to use and when to carry it, but still inform campus users of spaces and behaviours to avoid.

Adjusting how we think about the problem could be a win-win. If we aim low – in the sense of rights infringement – then we are likely to get greater participation (or less resistance) and end up with more accurate, relevant information on how to stay safe.

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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