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UN Agencies Uphold Human Rights Considerations In COVID-19 Data Collection

The United Nations and 15 of its agencies have underlined their support for data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic which respects the right to privacy and promotes development.

Mobility data derived from phones, emails and social media, for example, can assist in both monitoring the spread of the virus and in implementing activities the UN is mandated to carry out, according to their joint statement issued on Thursday.

However, they warned that vast amounts of sensitive data, both personal and non-personal, can be collected through digital contact tracing and general health surveillance.

“This could have significant effects beyond the initial crisis response phase, including, if such measures are applied for purposes not directly or specifically related to the COVID-19 response, potentially leading to the infringement of fundamental human rights and freedoms”, they said.

“This concern is especially pressing if some emergency measures introduced to address the pandemic, such as digital contact tracing, are turned into standard practice.”

Critical role of human rights

In May, the UN Secretary-General issued a policy brief highlighting how human rights are critical to shaping pandemic response, as they put people “centre-stage” while also preserving human dignity.

The UN entities stressed that in the context of the pandemic, any data collection by the UN system should be rooted in human rights and applicable international law, data protection and privacy principles.

“Any measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic should also be consistent with the mandates of the respective UN System Organizations and take into account the balancing of relevant rights, including the right to health and life and the right to economic and social development”, they said.

Data collection precedent

In this regard, they outlined five points, including that data collection should be lawful, limited in scope and time, and necessary to specified legitimate purposes for pandemic response.

They also underscored the need to ensure confidentiality, security and proper destruction or deletion of any data.

“A coordinated and inclusive global UN-wide response rooted in solidarity is necessary to contain the pandemic and minimize its negative impact across the world,” the UN partners said.

Although the statement addressed the challenges of the current pandemic, they suggested that it may serve as a precedent for using data to respond to any future crises.

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