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[Column] Privacy versus security in a COVID-19 context


The views of this column do not represent the views of the writer; to oppose the disclosure of patient routes is the unpopular opinion in South Korea, and I have written this article to supplement that imbalance. I simply wish to act like a devil’s advocate and point out some flaws of the classic arguments for the policy rather than to provide an alternative viewpoint of mine.


As the classic argument of libertarianism goes, to sustain the right of one is to compromise the right of another. This statement seems ever more true, in such a world with an increasingly developing technology that has the potential to pry into our daily lives, yet also has the chance of significantly rendering our lives safer. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments have implemented quarantine tactics that necessitate some infringements on privacy--something that has raised legitimate concern around the globe.

One prominent example, and the most conspicuous one, would be the tracking and disclosure of patient routes. Numerous governments around the world have selectively disclosed information of the coronavirus patients, and such strategies have proven their exceptional efficiency in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and such. While many proponents of the policy argue that it is a necessary choice amid such a global disaster, some dissent on the grounds that privacy is a sacrosanct value.

Debate between principles: privacy versus security

In my opinion, the importance of privacy must never be overlooked, as privacy is a prerequisite for many other rights that allow a dignified life. Only when we have a private sphere, we can choose to have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of everything. In a world where we live under risk of being spied upon, there would be a moral barrier that naturally prevents us from exerting our freedom, which is a necessity for a human life. The relevance of this principle to the coronavirus pandemic? A gay patient was unceremoniously outed after he was disclosed of visiting a Gay bar. A patient was disclosed to have visited many “love hotels” after being diagnosed with the disease.

Some might argue that many governments disclose minimum information, such as age or area of residence, which are insufficient to know who the patient is. However, the disclosure of one’s crucial personal information (name or ID number) is not necessary to be an infringement on privacy. That is, the infringement on privacy itself implicates violence. If I am a Gay person who was outed, it would not matter to me whether people know my name and face or not. The very fact that I have been “forcibly” outed without consent would be sufficient to make me feel unprotected and insecure. This is because a breach on privacy, in and of itself, entails violence. The violence may not be physical, but it still exists. An infringement on privacy, disclosure of routes in this case, is not an end in and of itself; rather, it is a means to achieving collective security. However, if the policy would make individuals feel insecure rather than protected, isn’t that evidence that the regulation is backfiring?

Because these are systematic problems of the policy, the only way to solve them would be to limit disclosed information. Yet, to do so would compromise the efficiency of the policy--one that contradicts the entire purpose of the policy.

Issues of Practicality

Then, the debate naturally boils down to whether the policy actually achieves security. Some state that the policy allowed nations to effectively tackle the coronavirus and halt the spread, enumerating examples of states that have been successful. However, such examples may entail a causation and correlation error. It is unclear as to whether the policy was the cause behind effective handling of the disease, or whether the public’s awareness of the virus was the cause behind it and the policy is simply an example that shows such high levels of awareness.

In fact, the policy might not be a panacea as many assume. Such disclosure might cause a false sense of security that it would be safe to visit areas where disclosed patients have not visited; however, the most frightening characteristics of the COVID-19 is that it often deceives test kits, and many undiagnosed patients might be roaming around our cities. This may be ever more true in the context of developing nations or nations with a weak public health infrastructure, where they do not have sheer capital to produce enough accurate testing kits. The divergence of resources must also be noted, as the manpower and technology that would’ve been used otherwise for maintaining public health and order would be diverted to tracking the whereabouts of these patients during the past two weeks.

Now, what I would need here is a cool conclusion. However, while I am good at writing introductions, I get lost every time I try to write a conclusion. So I would just end my column here.


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