4 rules to stop governments misusing COVID-19 tech after the crisis


(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Wafa Ben-Hassine, Consultant, International Finance Corporation & Philip Dawson, Lead, Public Policy, Element AI

• Most people concede that public health currently trumps individual rights when it comes to the use of coronavirus data.

• We must consider the use of this data, and the related technologies, once the crisis recedes.

• Technology-driven responses to crises must be underpinned by human rights.

As COVID-19 continues its global surge, a number of governments, scientists and technologists have been exploring how technology, including artificial intelligence, could be used to help “flatten” the novel coronavirus’s curve.

To date, the most prominent examples of technology-driven solutions to the pandemic have focused on enhancing public health surveillance. All over the world and in countries like China, India, Israel, Singapore and throughout Europe, governments have availed themselves of emergency measures to collect data from CCTV cameras, cell phones and credit-card transactions in order to track infected patients, their movements and encounters.

The information gathered about disease exposure can be used to implement – and enforce – targeted social distancing measures based on perceived level of risk. Without a compelling public health justification, this can cause a disproportionate negative impact on human rights. Under usual circumstances, governments would require an individual’s permission or court orders to obtain user data from telecommunications or tech companies.


In the current pandemic environment, human rights law recognizes, and most of us would readily concede, that temporary limitations on privacy and the freedom of movement may be necessary to protect the health and safety of hundreds of millions. Governments, universities and companies have been working to enable COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in communities. Motivating these efforts is the belief that with better understanding of who has been infected, and who has been in close proximity to infected persons, we should be able to limit the spread of the disease more effectively and more efficiently. Yet before deploying related technological tools broadly, we need to understand and address the immense risks that they can pose.

The question before us is not just the public health benefit of increased surveillance and loss of privacy during times of pandemic emergency. What we must consider also is how we can limit the use, and misuse, of associated data and tools once this crisis recedes. Unless we exercise great care, broad societal acceptance of technological solutions that compromise privacy in time of emergency can generate new tools for government tracing and tracking of citizens’ movements and interactions in ordinary times, with profound and enduring consequences for human rights and the functioning of our democracies – and the creation of new systems of government power. We believe that it is essential that technologies deployed today to facilitate testing and contact tracing include strict limitations on data collection and storage and how that data can be used (especially in ways that might harm or disadvantage an individual, for example through use in law enforcement). Additionally, robust use of strong encryption technologies (in case data is misplaced or stolen) and strict time limits on permitted uses are needed, so that today’s protection of citizens does not become their scourge once COVID-19 is behind us.

That is why we need clear rules for what can and cannot be done with sensitive information like health or surveillance data during emergency circumstances.

In order to ensure that technology-driven responses to COVID-19 respect human rights and in support of the many recommendations made by the global human rights community, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Human Rights and the Fourth Industrial Revolution recommends:

1. States recognize international human rights law as the foundation for technology governance

The international human rights law framework provides the normative foundation for understanding the risks and challenges associated with the design, development and deployment of digital technologies. This is even more important to emphasize when governments consider using digital technologies to limit rights and freedoms.

Government-mandated actions that limit human rights and freedoms may only be justified if they are necessary and proportionate to the need. Actions that meet these criteria in the context of COVID-19 emergency measures should be acknowledged and explained to the public. Furthermore, where digital systems are used to inform social distancing policies, we must be transparent about the role they play in helping to decide which individuals or communities get to enjoy certain rights including, the freedom of movement or assembly, or the right to work.

2. COVID-19 responses should draw on international best practices

Guidance for data and tech governance related to COVID-19 use cases should draw on best practices, including the Toronto Declaration – a global civil society response guiding the right to equality in AI; and more recent guidelines, such as Access Now’s recommendations for a digital rights-respecting COVID-19 response and the European Commission’s guidelines for the use of technology and data to combat and exit from the COVID-19 crisis. Organizations should use these frameworks and share their learnings publicly.

Standards will be needed for the collection, use, grading, sharing and analysis of data for COVID-19 response efforts. These should include enforcing clear measures for data minimization to ensure that the collection of personal information is limited to what is relevant or necessary to accomplish the stated purpose; as well as rules regarding the de-identification or anonymization of personal information.

3. Data minimization and purpose limitation

Initiatives led by government agencies or public health administrations and authorities should adhere to the principle of data minimization closely. This principle ensures that entities only collect and process data that is strictly relevant and adequate for public health purposes and research, and that said data is not repurposed for advertising or marketing. Public health authorities should also afford special protection to the sensitive data of children. Similarly, an expiry date must be slated for all surveillance technologies implemented as a response to the emergency based on concrete markers – for example, the end of a crisis (and factors signalling the end of the crisis must be explicit), but also when the intervention is found to be minimally effective, or ineffective such that it doesn’t fulfill the requirements outlined above.

4. Transparency in reporting and tracking

In taking consequential actions to combat the virus – such as restricting movement between cities, mandating “shelter in place” policies, and shutting down national borders – governments can either increase trust in institutions or actively work to dismantle such trust. Transparency in reporting on these actions, how decisions are made and upon what kind of data, and in how cases are being tracked are all critical to preventing panic and increasing trust. In South Korea, which saw a flattening of the curve despite a sudden surge in cases, Foreign Minister Kang also explained that being open with people and securing their trust is vitally important. “The key to our success has been absolute transparency with the public – sharing every detail of how this virus is evolving, how it is spreading and what the government is doing about it, warts and all.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

According to the Open Data Institute, there are three additional reasons why governments should be open and transparent about the models and data they are employing to determine appropriate responses to the virus. First, people need to understand why governments are making the decisions they are making. Once again, this understanding leads to greater trust between citizens and the government. Second, scientists should be able to scrutinize these models to improve them. Finally, sharing models could help other governments around the world, particularly those with lower capacity, to respond more effectively.

Finally, it is crucial that governments continue to uphold the right to freedom of expression and to support open journalism on the virus.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Legendary Harlem Globetrotters slam-dunk at the UN, with message that brings families, nations together

‘Severe’ new US asylum restrictions will put vulnerable families at risk, UN refugee agency says

Sexual education in a school at the Brazilian Amazon

COP21 Breaking News: “There is an ecological debt that the world needs to pay back to Africa”, French President Francois Hollande promises 2 Billion euros by 2020 from Paris

3 reasons why data is not the new oil – and why this matters to India

Mexico needs a new strategy to boost growth, fight poverty and improve well-being for all

Bangladesh: Head of UN refugee agency calls on Asia-Pacific leaders to show ‘solidarity’ with Rohingya refugees

Clean Mobility: Commission tables proposal on car emissions testing in real driving conditions

The end of Spitzenkandidat: EU leaders concluded unexpectedly on EU top jobs

Statement by Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager on State aid measures to address the economic impact of COVID-19

Impact investment favours expats over African entrepreneurs. Here’s how to fix that

Reconciliation helps ‘repair fractures’, enable lasting peace, Security Council hears

How the tech sector can power the shift to a sustainable economy

It’s time to end the stigma around mental health in the workplace

‘Humiliation was the worst’; Holocaust survivor at UN, asks world to act with ‘empathy and compassion’

UN chief appeals to G7 leaders for ‘strong commitment’ and political will to tackle climate emergency

Why strive for Industry 4.0

The gender gap of medicine in 2018

How a new approach to meat can help end hunger

What next for Europe? Three (completely) different Davos views

Young health workforce – a core of effective primary healthcare?

‘€1 million’ fines for rescue boats prompts UN concern for future sea operations

The COVID-19 vaccine’s challenges

European financial values on the rise

UN programme to help spare millions from child marriage, extended to 2023

3 ways to improve diversity and inclusion in your organization

Two major EU projects falter; the Schengen Agreement now freezes and Eurozone fails to resolve the Greek enigma

‘Abhorrent’ ambulance attack in Libyan capital imperils life-saving work, warns UN

Coronavirus: Eight macro-financial assistance programmes agreed to support enlargement and neighbourhood partners

Air pollution: How to end the deaths of 7 million people per year?

India is now the world’s 5th largest economy

Parliament declares the European Union an ‘‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’’

Algeria must stop arbitrary expulsion of West African migrants in desert: UN migration rights expert

Cameron postpones speech in Holland

China-EU Summit on 16-17 July 2018: “Work together to address common challenges”, by China’s Ambassador to the EU

Respect for fundamental rights and freedoms key for peaceful polls in DRC – UN mission chief

Brexit effect: Public opinion survey shows that EU is more appreciated than ever

Afghanistan probe: ‘at least 60 civilians’ killed after US military airstrikes on alleged drug labs

Amid global ‘learning crisis’, Parliaments can ensure adequate resources for education, says UN Assembly President

Long-term EU budget: MEPs slam cuts to culture and education

‘End the ongoing atrocities’ against people with albinism in Malawi, say UN rights experts

This Netherlands football stadium creates its own energy and stores it in electric car batteries

The US will impose tariffs on Mexico, says President Trump

Challenges facing the COVID-19 vaccination campaigns

Commission opens infringement procedures against 24 Member States for not transposing new EU telecom rules

3 reasons we should all care about biodiversity

Air pollution: How to end the deaths of 7 million people per year

UN human rights ruling could boost climate change asylum claims

Australia urged to evacuate offshore detainees amid widespread, acute mental distress

Coronavirus spread now a global emergency declares World Health Organization

China Unlimited – The chinese tourism in Lisbon

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize

UN experts decry torture of Rakhine men and boys held incommunicado by Myanmar’s military

‘Champion for multilateralism’ readies to hand over UN General Assembly gavel

UN recognises role of sport in achieving sustainable development

Commission presents review of EU economic governance and launches debate on its future

Inclusion, empowerment and equality, must be ‘at the heart of our efforts’ to ensure sustainable development, says UN chief

EU Security Union Strategy: connecting the dots in a new security ecosystem

Pharmaceuticals conceal drug side effects with the EU’s Court blessing

The EU moulds a new compromise for growth and financial sustainability

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s