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Privacy and Human Rights Should Not Become Afterthoughts During the Coronavirus Pandemic

David Jelke

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Photo of Courtney Radsch courtesy Committee to Protect Journalists

May 2, 2020—News about the coronavirus pandemic “shouldn’t be an avalanche that buries” news on human rights, said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, at a Thursday webinar hosted by the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs.

Kaye criticized the way that sensitive data is being talked about during the outbreak. He lamented that data privacy issues are being framed “as either this or that,” such as a choice between either public health or freedom of expression. That’s “entirely the wrong way” to look at it, he said.

Instead, Kaye argued that governments “should present their evidence for each decision limiting rights,” and that restrictions on privacy rights that are deemed necessary should be “consistent with and respectful of” other rights an individual possesses.

In addition, misinformation about the coronavirus and other news topics have been running rampant.

“Determining what is ‘the truth’ is really challenging in this situation,” said Courtney Rasch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, referencing Trump’s medically unsound, spur-of-the-moment suggestion that applying bleach to the lungs could kill COVID-19.

Radsch agreed with Kaye in condemning dismissive attitudes towards civil liberties during the pandemic. Kaye had said that “human rights barely have any weight on its side.”

Radsch criticized the praise being given to nations that have had successful COVID-19 containment efforts such as China, South Korea and Israel, pointing out that their strategies have involved “very invasive surveillance technologies.”

Radsch also argued that certain countries are taking advantage of the blind eye the world is turning to privacy rights amidst the pandemic, such as Hungary’s passage of a law imposing jail penalties for the spread of misinformation. The law has been widely criticized by journalists who fear it will be used to silence any negative coverage of the government.

David Kaye

“We shouldn’t be cowed into self-censoring because the pandemic is the overriding concern.” Kaye said.

The questions that have been raised about data, such as who has access to it and whether it has an expiration date, deserve more discussion, Radsch said.

“We must not let coronavirus become a cover for restricting our human rights,” she added.

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