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Big Brother and Big Data name names on COVID-19: Are you safe?

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Public health officials in two-thirds of U.S. states are sharing the addresses of those who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP). Ten states are also sharing the names, says the AP.

The ten states are: Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee.

The development is raising privacy concerns with civil libertarians who say that the sharing of data violates restrictions on unreasonable search and seizure in the U.S. Constitution.

“The information could actually have a chilling effect that keeps those already distrustful of the government from taking the COVID-19 test and possibly accelerate the spread of the disease,” the Tennessee Black Caucus told the AP.

Normally, patient data is protected under the health privacy act (HIPPA). Under the current Health and Human Services instructions there are exceptions to the privacy rule:

The Privacy Rule permits covered entities to disclose protected health information, without authorization, to persons or entities activities including:

Required by Law or Judicial and Administrative Proceedings

Prevention or control of disease, injury, or disability

Child or adult abuse, neglect, or domestic Violence

Quality, safety or effectiveness of a product or activity regulated by the FDA

Persons at risk of contracting or spreading a disease

Workplace medical surveillance (e.g., Workers’ compensation systems, OSHA compliance, etc.)

Specific law enforcement purposes

Cadaveric organ, eye, or tissue donations

Research purposes with IRB or privacy board approval

Historical purposes regarding decedents after 50 years following the date of death

Serious threat to health or safety to a person or public

While there are at least four scenarios that would apply under the HHS rule –which are bolded by us above– those rules have not been tested in court yet.

Critics on both the right and the left are not mollified by those exceptions.

It’s a widely accepted fact that Big Data can help track and monitor the spread of contagions like COVID-19, but people wonder at what cost.

A Google search of Big Data and COVID reveals almost universal acceptance and even enthusiastic embracing of such techniques to help mitigate the pandemic.

But data mining is typically only supposed to be used in the aggregate, with personally identifiable information not be shared. The reaction by Facebook users is almost universally hostile.  

Many seem to unaware of HIPAA exceptions, and nonetheless feel like sharing the names of COVID positive people is a violation of privacy rights.

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