Last fall, my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had just recently finished her chemotherapy treatments. Because her immune system has been severely weakened, the COVID-19 threat to her health is potentially lethal. We decided to isolate well before the stay-at-home directives from state and local governments.
By now we’re all familiar with one of the key ethical dilemmas that’s arisen during the pandemic: Do we isolate from one another and risk a catastrophic economic downturn, disproportionately hurting the poor and vulnerable but protecting the elderly and the high-risk, like my wife? Or do we risk public health by keeping the economy open?
Another ethical issue, however, is also emerging. It concerns the question of how best to use data and tracking technology to protect human life, while at the same time not sacrificing our personal privacy.
How Data Helps in Pandemics
Data is powerful in the fight to control coronavirus. In fact, Google may know more about the rise and spread of diseases than the CDC does. Why? Because people often go to a search engine with questions like, “How sick do you need to be to stay home from work?” before asking another person. This data is combined with a host of other data points collected on us every day as we use our devices and apps. And now Google is releasing troves of this data to aid public-health officials in detecting hot spots and user locations.
From nationwide maps of American travel habits to the temperature data from internet-connected thermometers, technology and data are being harnessed in incredible ways to aid our fight against this invisible enemy. Many of these modern advances allow us to love God and neighbor well as we push back against this deadly virus.
Some are calling for even more data collection and centralization in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. Google and Apple recently joined forces to develop and deploy Bluetooth-powered contact tracing. While it’s true that the combination of vast amounts of personal data—digital health records, testing results, location data, and more—could more accurately predict potential hot spots, it could also lead to massive invasions of personal privacy.
Would you be comfortable with your web searches, facial data, medical records, personal fitness information, and even your refrigerator collecting data on you to feed into a central AI system, if it meant we could predict diseases like COVID-19 before they spread? In order for a system to be able to detect the subtlest signs of a virus outbreak with the most accuracy, we would have to turn over massive amounts of personal data. This data would also need to be centralized in order for AI systems to process and accurately detect patterns.
So, how should we go about using these technologies ethically?
Biblical Wisdom for Data Ethics
The Christian moral tradition grounds decision-making in something greater than the public mood or often abstract notions of human rights and privacy. The Bible frames these questions in terms of human dignity, grounded in the idea that all humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–28). The imago Dei sets us apart from the rest of creation and bestows on us a sense of dignity and privacy.
Personal privacy is not an ambiguous right or simply something derived from democratic philosophy, but rather something God bestows on each of us as image-bearers in a broken world. Our interior life is spoken of throughout Scripture, often in the hidden place of relationship with God. The Bible describes God as all-knowing and all-loving (Heb. 4:13; John 3:16), but when humans try to be all-knowing—without the love and sacrifice God perfectly demonstrates—it leads to trouble.
When humans try to be all-knowing—without the love and sacrifice God perfectly demonstrates—it leads to trouble.
From server breaches and the malicious use of data for discriminatory purposes, to the plays for complete control over the powerless, there is huge potential for data collection to wreak havoc on human flourishing. We must therefore use these tools with caution and a certain level of transparency.
Just because we can know something or use the data for some public good doesn’t mean that we should override someone’s dignity to obtain their private information. Nor does it mean that governments or private companies can be trusted to honor our dignity by protecting the data they collect or store on each of us. While it may be beneficial in the short term, Big Brother–type data tracking could also spell danger in the long run. Data collection on such a massive scale will yield immense power, which can be easily abused when concentrated in the hands of the few.
Again, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. The challenge is to balance the benefits of these tools with their dehumanizing potential, for the dignity of our neighbors is at stake. We must carefully consider, then, how chipping away privacy—for the sake of what might seem like a “greater good,” however we define it—sets a precedent for justifying future encroachments and a further undermining of human dignity.