A Faustian Bargain Involving Privacy, Pandemic and a Functioning Economy
Will the price of controlling current and future pandemics be our privacy? Will societies, at some point, be willing to strike a Faustian Bargain and give up their privacy in return for a functioning economy? A Faustian Bargain is described by the encyclopedia Britannica as a “pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance for some material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches.” Some countries have already made that bargain, and as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, more societies will be forced to confront this decision.
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, privacy looks to be one of the values required in the Faustian Bargain to keep an economy functioning. The other option is to offer up life itself – a serious topic for another time.
South Korea, widely praised for their fast and efficient COVID-19 response and control, passed legislation in 2015 after a deadly MERS outbreak that gave government authority to collect mobile phone, credit card and other data from those who test positive to an infectious diseases. They have now added a central tracking app called Corona 100m. This mobile app publicly informs citizens of known cases within 100 meters of their current location. Both of these examples are the result of a 2015 Faustian Bargain South Koreans made between privacy and pandemic control.
In China they are using mobile apps connected to government servers and tracking systems to dictate whether a person should be quarantined, allowed to ride subways, visit and shop at malls, work and be present in other public spaces. A green badge on a mobile phone means the owner is symptom free, yellow means the person has had contact with an infected person and hasn’t finished the quarantine period, and a red badge means the owner is confirmed to be infected, or has a fever or other symptoms and is awaiting a diagnosis. Privacy advocates are quick to point out these mobile apps can be used by police, government agencies and other intelligence services for other forms of automated social control as well.
Raina MacIntyre, Emerging Infectious Disease scholar at the University of New South Wales lists the three actions societies must quickly employ to control a pandemic: instantly scale testing and diagnostic capacity, isolate those found to be positive, and track all of their contacts (and test/isolate). This is a nearly impossible job to do during a rapidly expanding pandemic if you are using paper, pencil and other manual processes.
Smartphones with their mobile networks, apps, GPS, WiFi and bluetooth radios and other powerful utilities are amazingly powerful computers that can collect and spinoff all kinds of very useful data for those fighting and managing disease. Many countries and people, however, are still not willing to make the Faustian Bargain between privacy, pandemic and a functioning economy. Perhaps we will someday find out if the saying, “Everything is for sale if the price is right,” is a true maxim.