The role of data in pandemics


Financial Times is a “venerable” financial daily. I often link to their opinion pieces and editorials. I don’t really consider this financial rag worthy of emulation, but sometimes, they outdo themselves in matters of stupidity. Their reporting is often out of place and misrepresented, but somehow, they hold sway in the corridors of influence.

Nevertheless, I am linking to their editorial because they made several assertions that merit some consideration from a policy perspective.

Faced with a pandemic, many members of the public will be willing to trade some measure of privacy to help efforts to protect them. Data sharing may in fact have long-term benefits. Access to wide-ranging information on Covid-19 could allow health services to prepare themselves better for future epidemics, and determine how best to deploy resources before they happen.

I agree about the long term benefits of data sharing but who controls the data? Who is the final arbiter of control and access? The government vests with the ultimate authority but it gets muddled in the face of “authoritarian and undemocratic countries”. Their own yardstick falls short in their own backyard.

In the rush to expand data collection, however, provisions such as the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU’s gold-standard regulatory framework, have been left by the wayside. Data collected haphazardly may lack the accuracy needed to underpin good decision-making

I don’t necessarily agree that the European Union represents the “gold standard”. In fact, it is widely perceived that the EU missed the bus by not being able to create a “technology giant” like Google or Facebook and hence decided to curtail the data collection locally. However, it is a tricky political and policy issue, and many countries don’t even realise the value that data provides.

Care must be taken to avoid re-identification of potentially personal information, especially in countries where standards of democracy and rule of law are weaker.

Financial Times makes the assumption that “western democracies” represent the bulwark of data propriety; in the UK, NHS is making a deal to give away patient data to the same technology companies selling snake oil. In the US, government-mandated surveillance has reached the provincial level through various intermediaries.

Also important is a “sunset” clause on behaviour that has potential to morph into mass surveillance. Government bodies will have to allow for regular, independent reviews of the actual uses of data collection. The principle of data minimisation is key: if sensitive information is not being put to good use, it should probably not be collected at all.

I doubt that any government would push in for a “sunset clause”. It is wishful thinking. Data, either for meaningful outcomes or for surveillance, is too valuable to be lost and the government wouldn’t risk killing the goose that lays eggs.

My only concern is that libertarian values sound romantic but are hugely implausible to effect practically. To push them in the mainstream without upholding how it could be utilised for the greater common good, would be a waste of efforts. In fact, they should push towards defining the graded access and control with granular precision and mechanism to safeguard it for perpetuity.