Thursday 22 January 2015

Ebola and privacy – when is it appropriate to track individuals?

Two articles have recently crossed my desk offering very different perspectives on tracking Ebola patients.

The first, from Hogan Lovell’s Daniel J Solove, referred to recent breaches involving US hospital employees snooping on Ebola patients files. Of significance was that the names of all of the patients were available almost immediately in the media. But why was it necessary or ethical for so many in the media to identify these patients? Responsible journalism this certainly aint.

The second, from GSMA’s privacy guru Pat Walshe, referred to the incredible work that he and the GSMA have recently done in swiftly developing a set of guidelines on how mobile communications data could most appropriately be used to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa. How do you track potential victims of the outbreak, so that they can receive appropriate treatment? The GSMA’s focus was on helping their colleagues at Flowminder ensure that mobile users privacy was respected and protected and that any associated risks were addressed.

A set of pithy, easy-to-follow GSMA guidelines have surely contributed to averting a humanitarian disaster on a far larger scale than has so far occurred. The GSMA’s and Flowminder’s research methods are on the agenda at Davos at the World Economic Forum. It’s highly likely that this technique will be used to deal with similar occasions when relevant anonymised network statistics are urgently required by health and aid agencies.

So its three cheers for Pat Walshe & the GSMA for respecting the privacy rights of individuals affected by Ebola – and two raspberries to the US media for ignoring them.