Digital Rights are Human Rights

The Digital Freedom Fund counted down to Human Rights Day 2020 with a series of short posts. Each post was written by a guest author and illustrates how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies in the digital age. The full series can be viewed here.

The right to health

UDHR Article 25

In the discussion of COVID-19 apps, the right to health has popped up frequently. In most cases, it has arisen alongside the right to privacy. The logic so often went as follows: in the interests of protecting public health, surely we can afford to sacrifice our right to privacy?

However, this doesn’t do justice to what privacy means for our society. Privacy protects and enables other essential democratic rights. It secures our possibility to freely develop dissenting opinions, safely figure out who we are, develop our personality, and freely process our faith.

It also plays an essential role in the context of the right to health: Would you be honest with your doctor if you weren’t sure that they would be discreet with your personal health information. To guarantee safe access to healthcare, privacy is essential.

Privacy has had a rough time during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, it’s hard to argue against the protection of public health. But the wrong frame has been set for the discussion. We need both privacy and health, and they should complement one another.

We should start to reframe the discussion by, firstly, asking ourselves whether technology is always the right solution. We have a tendency to cling to technology, hastily treating it as a magic fix whenever we’re overwhelmed by issues we don’t quite understand. That’s why the prospect of a big and scary pandemic being restrained by technology is so comforting at first glance. Unfortunately, though, this tech-solutionism can often lead us down the wrong path.

We should be very careful with the introduction and normalisation of surveillance infrastructures in our societies, and we should be wary of big data monopolists selling technologies that gather our health data to strengthen their position of power as a solution for our societal problems. We should keep in mind that surveillance is not a medicine, and that a healthy society entails both a right to health and a right to privacy.

By Lotte Houwing, Policy Advisor at Bits of Freedom.