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Survey: Personal privacy vs public health in the age of COVID-19

South Korea has probably had the most effective response to the coronavirus pandemic thanks to its overwhelming surveillance of the population. The government has been able to track and isolate infected people and their contacts, using their mobile phones, CCTV surveillance, and credit card data. The monitoring was made possible by people accepting their privacy needed to be breached by the government.

RTD asked people from the ten countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases an important question: are you ready for the government to introduce omnipresent surveillance violating your privacy, to track your phones and bank transactions, and use CCTV cameras to detect the infected and potentially infected people in exchange for the freedom of movement and lifting the quarantine?

1. USA

Right now we are on lockdown until May 4th, but I think it will be extended — I hope so. It only takes one person to have it and spread it to another, and another, and another, and soon the virus will be full-blown again. We have to stay with lockdown longer! Having said that, some businesses might be allowed to open with staggered shifts and hours and keep distancing.

As far as I know, we haven’t gotten into the government imposing omnipresent surveillance and violating our privacy, tracking our phones and bank transactions or using CCTV cameras. I would not approve of that! I don’t think that is necessary. I think our government as a whole are doing their best with the information they have. I think things like invading our privacy is going to the extreme! (Beverly, 80, retiree)

2. Spain

I would be in favour of allowing access to my privacy in an extreme case when it is absolutely necessary. Also, only for the necessary data. No full access in any case. The credibility level that I grant to the government is seven out of ten concerning this issue. In any case, once this exceptional situation is over, we must return to the previous situation of protecting personal data. The aim is not to allow the rights of the citizens to be abused and violated when the situation no longer demands it. In my opinion, our society is more individualistic than collective.

However, I think we will agree to take certain steps to stop the pandemic if necessary, provided there are adequate measures, the government is controlled, and the measures will stop when everything ends.(Carlos, 25, student)

3. Italy

Italian citizens have shown a great spirit of sacrifice. Almost all people agree to renounce the usual freedom and are following the government's provisions. However, a certain part of the population who preferred to move across the country to reunite with their families for the holidays ignoring the government regulations — the famous escape from the north to the south on the night when quarantine restrictions were adopted — contributed to the spread of the pandemic. Even if, due to the behaviour of certain groups of the population, restrictions similar to those of South Korea will seem to be needed — which I personally disapprove of — I don’t think that Italy is able and ready to collect and process personal information: there are no adequate political structures. (Vincenzo, 26, business analyst)


I am not ready at all to let our government impose surveillance; it violates my privacy. My general level of credibility towards the government is mid-level; the credibility is often marred by rhetoric. In the last speech delivered by Macron, I appreciated his thoughts on social justice, but there is still much to do. The overall level of public awareness in my country is quite good.

But I don’t think that the people are ready to use the collected data judiciously. If you ask me what inconveniences really might be caused by such a strategy, for me, it’s the inability to travel freely. But I would accept the total surveillance if the health of the weakest will depend on that. (Marie, 34, art projects curator)

5. Germany 

My trust in the government is moderate. The social awareness about the coronavirus threat is very low, as we can still see crowds of people in parks and during family celebrations — the government prohibited group gatherings. Still, many people don’t obey the rules. As for the total surveillance, it is impossible to implement in Germany, since Germany has very strict data protection laws.

In my opinion, there should be no control over personal data in Germany, also because for the German people, the privacy of their personal information is essential. (Sven, 45, insurance broker)

6. United Kingdom 

Public awareness is high because the personal information gathered on each individual is gained at company and local government level for the single purpose of supplying goods and services, as well as tax collection. If the government needs access to these details, they can have this information via the tax office or from companies, but only in emergency cases such as war, terrorism, financial crime and most likely due to a health pandemic.

There is no inconvenience at a personal level if you have nothing to hide. The government must establish basic criteria for personal data gathering that would address the critical situation: track my phone rather than listening on my calls during crisis periods, knowing person residential address, or car registration number. (Oleg, 39, bank worker)

7. Turkey 

I think that the state will not use my personal rights and private information in a way that is not in line with its purpose. A large part of society thinks it is important to keep private information private. The authorities will demonstrate the sensitivity to use the information as needed.

The Ministry of Health has developed an application regarding the epidemic. With this application, you can already see how risky the region you live in. I do not think the strategy will be implemented in Turkey. I think that if such an application is planned, an arrangement will be made regarding personal rights and freedoms. (Haşim, 38, correspondent)

8. Iran

Iran does not use the Chinese model for quarantine. ‘Smart Distancing’ is an alternative model. There is also reducing the presence of office staff in the workplace, working hours, closing all restaurants, sports venues, banning and restricting provincial trips, closing hotels, as well as postponing rent payment, electricity, water and gas bills to encourage people to stay home. It is clear that all these restrictions may be subject to change in the future.

Personally, I agree to give my information. But no such plan has been proposed in Iran so far. If the government is forced to do so, I believe a large part of the society will agree and cooperate with the government to maintain their health. Over the past two months, the Iranian people have collaborated very closely with the government. (Roohollah, 39, journalist)

9. Russia 

Regarding the supervision of personal data, I am sure that the government had some of this data long before this happened. When the first cases of coronavirus appeared — it was used, sick people were quarantined, as were their relatives. The operational headquarters did everything very quickly — without personal data such as registration address, phone number, etc. this would not have been possible. At first, it helped, now the spread of the virus has accelerated, and it has become impossible to keep track of it and stop it, that is, at this stage, it is already debatable to talk about the real benefits of such surveillance.

I am against access to personal data, primarily because the pandemic will someday end, but surveillance and tracking can continue — both by mistake and intentionally. Moreover, it is very difficult to protect such a volume of information. (Anastasia, 27, smm-manager)

10. China 

Personally, I would give up my personal information if I was told that the government needs it in a situation like this. We see how dangerous the virus is, and we are very serious in complying with the rules and measures taken. The surveillance based on personal data is easier than a total quarantine.

If I were to choose, I would still decide to stay at home and observe quarantine. You see, the population in China is so high, and the virus is extremely contagious and takes a long time to treat. You can test negative one moment, and the next moment you are sick. (Zheng Fuxue, 29, interpreter)