Access Info Europe and the Open Data Charter co-hosted a RightsCon panel where they spoke with data and privacy experts on the importance of making data open during the Covid-19 pandemic, while ensuring both the public’s safety and the privacy of the individual.


In order to provide citizens with information on current Covid-19 cases, governments are collecting unprecedented amounts of personal data and making quick decision on innovative uses of that data, often without the data subject’s consent. During the RightsCon panel, Viola Ochola, Office of the Ombudsman in Kenya, addressed this issue and spoke of the dangers of a potential paradigm shift where public health concerns overshadow the right to privacy of the individual.

There exists an intense public interest in understanding how this data is being collected and its use. Maria Paz Canales, Executive Director at Derechos Digitales, spoke of the failure of the Chilean central government to provide accurate and relevant information on Covid-19 cases. She stressed how important it is to release information in a way that doesn’t put private individuals at risk.

Yet, the release of health data is essential to help citizens navigate this pandemic and to successfully allocate resources. Fernanda Campagnucci, Executive Director at Open Knowledge Brazil, stated how the release of health micro-data helped understand how minority communities are being affected by Covid-19. The analysis of this data made evident the inequality of access to health care that exists in the country.

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director at Access Info stated that in response to this pandemic, governments must ensure that there exists a very clear line between what information should be released in the public interest and what information should not be released as it can bring harm to private individuals.

“Access Info Europe and the Open Data Charter have been working for years on balancing the right of access to information and open data with privacy,” said Darbishire. “This year, however, has highlighted the real human impacts of this challenge.”

Rachel Hanna, Legal Researcher and Campaigner at Access Info, called for governments to combine their best practices and commit to reforms, offering the following points for action and collaboration:

  • Transparency is needed, not only on the current number of cases within a certain area, but also on other measures taken to combat the pandemic, such as emergency procurement procedures and what decisions are being made, and by whom.
  • There needs to be more communication and compilation of best practices that will help governments globally to strike the right balance between transparency and privacy in an effective way, in the public interest.
  • Civil society organisations should work with Information and Data Protection Commissioners in developing this knowledge base, and in identifying which datasets should be released and which safeguards should be put in place.
  • Governance must be flexible and dynamic. Different situations and technologies mean different security risks and, as the world changes, risks may change with it too. There is a need for solid governance and a careful consideration for the design of data management and storage.
  • There should also be risk impact assessments for all Covid-19 related data collection efforts. These assessments should be made public, overseen by independent experts, and ensure they further ethics, human rights, and fairness of data processing systems.

Without transparency and open communication, a fair balance between data access and privacy is impossible. Nevertheless, with a solid data infrastructure and a collaborative governance framework in place, change is possible and lives can be saved.


Cover picture: transparencia* by + c r i p s w a l k +++++++  via Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)