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Privacy Perspectives | How is COVID-19 affecting privacy programs? A call for research action Related reading: IAPP releases updated 'Canadian Privacy' law book

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Like many of you, we are closely following new developments and working hard to understand the unfolding dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To further our understanding of the interplay between COVID-19 and privacy and data protection more narrowly, we are conducting a survey on how companies, in general, and privacy programs, in particular, are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need your help. If you have five minutes or so, please take this survey to aid in our research efforts around privacy and COVID-19. As always, we will analyze responses in the aggregate only, and your answers will not be tied to your name or email address.

Privacy in the wake of COVID-19

Privacy concerns have been front-and-center in the discussions around COVID-19, as not just privacy professionals, but also the broader public, policymakers and government leaders try to work through the difficult questions around data use (and misuse) that have arisen. Unsurprisingly, well-established players, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, continue to come under front-page scrutiny as they unveil data tools to fight the pandemic. Moreover, the privacy and security features of newer entrants, most notably Zoom, are also now on the minds of both regulators and the mass public. All things considered, the fact that privacy and data protection issues remain central to the public debate around the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the important role privacy professionals play around the world.

Understanding the intersection of COVID-19 and privacy

Given the nature of the pandemic, it is disheartening that there seems to be little we can do but remain at home until the virus wanes, a therapy is developed or a vaccine is created. After all, this is a crisis of public health, one in which scientists, epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and others play the key roles.

But what can the rest of us do?

As health and medical professionals work to bring this epidemic to an end, privacy professionals can work to ensure individuals’ fundamental rights to privacy and dignity are properly balanced with other fundamental rights, including the rights to safety and security. Indeed, what makes all these rights fundamental is that they are always protected, at least to a minimum degree, even in the midst of a crisis.

As countries around the world grapple with tracking and control of the outbreak, privacy professionals have a useful knowledge bank from which companies, public health authorities and other regulators can draw. Indeed, privacy professionals are uniquely positioned to think through — and to help lawmakers and the public think through — balancing the benefits of data use against the risks/harms of data misuse. As Alston & Bird Senior Counsel Peter Swire writes in this vein, “there are hard-won lessons about security and privacy that can be gleaned from the recent past.”

Some of these lessons include ensuring that data being collected is both accurate and actionable, being cautious about claims about the promises of data mining, and not resorting to “security theatre,” or superficial measures that provide a false sense of security but do not make us any safer in reality. Privacy professionals can share lessons such as these with their leaders and politicians, as well as friends and families, so debates about data collection and use going forward are based on thoughtful analysis.

A call to action

With these things in mind, the IAPP is taking the initiative to conduct a survey of our members to gain insight into the rapidly changing reality on the ground. This research project seeks to answer the questions: How are organizations responding to the outbreak and declaration of a public health emergency? How have practices around data collection and sharing been affected by COVID-19? What impact is the pandemic likely to have on privacy programs in the future? And how are the priorities of privacy professionals changing in response to all these challenges?

If you are an in-house privacy or IT professional, the IAPP would like to hear from you about how your company or organization is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your time and energy taken to participate in the survey will be greatly appreciated, and the results of this research will soon be published on the IAPP's website and made available for members. Not only will your participation help to bring about a better understanding of the intersection of COVID-19 and privacy and data protection issues, but it will also provide other IAPP members with more perspectives about the challenges we will continue to face, at least for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

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