NPC on Covid-19 outbreak: Gov’t must balance data privacy with public interest

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NPC chair Raymund Liboro

With the declaration of a public health emergency in the country due to the Covid-19 contagion, the National Privacy Commission (NPC) said it is imperative upon the government to strike a balance between individual data privacy and public health interests, including the public’s right to know.

“We wish to emphasize that the Data Privacy Act does not prevent the government from doing its job. It follows that the DPA should not prevent government, especially public health entities, from processing personal and sensitive personal information when necessary to fulfill their mandates during a public health emergency,” NPC chair Raymund Liboro said in a statement on Tuesday, March 10.

Liboro said the proper handling of health information of coronavirus patients is crucial in stopping the spread of the virus as government agencies mandated to address the outbreak must have access to the relevant information.

“The Department of Health has been cautious in upholding patients’ confidentiality. It is releasing only information that is necessary to protect public health during this time of emergency without sacrificing its duty to determine cases and conduct contact-tracing to contain the virus,” the NPC chief noted.

Liboro said the DOH will be walking a fine line in releasing a Covid-19 patient information to the public.

“Releasing patient information could produce fear and distress but may also make the people adopt the right precautions to stop the spread of the virus. During times of emergency, it is best to adhere to global best practices (as espoused by the General Medical Council, UK.) when assessing what type of patient personal information to disclose,” he said.

In disclosing details of the patient, the NPC said the following should be considered:

  • The potential harm or distress to the patient arising from the disclosure.
  • The potential damage to trust in doctors and health institutions in general.

These should then be weighed against:

  • The potential harm to the public if the information is not disclosed.
  • The potential benefits to individuals and society arising from the release of information.

“The DOH must continue performing its role and make that crucial call on what information is necessary for release to the public,” Liboro stressed.

The NPC said revealing the identities to the public or providing information that could accurately identify people who are under investigation or have contracted the disease is counter-productive and could do more harm than good.

“If people believe that their identities will be released to the public when they come out for testing, they may be discouraged to come out — making it more difficult for the DOH and the rest of the inter-agency task force to identify more Covid-19 cases,” the agency said.

“Any unnecessary disclosure of personal information may stunt government efforts to identify and test individuals with confirmed cases effectively and may have serious consequences, which could be far worse than the disease itself,” it added.

Liboro said only pertinent information necessary in facilitating contact tracing should be collected such as travel history and frequented locations. Likewise, the only information required to enable contact tracing shall be disclosed to the public, he added.

“We call on the public and the media to be responsible when sharing and publishing information to ensure the health and safety of everyone. It is prudent to confirm with the DOH’s official statistics and other information before sharing any pieces of information, especially information that would lead to the identification of an individual,” Liboro said.

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