A Legal Perspective on Contact Tracing

Information for early detection of health emergencies can save lives. In the COVID-19 crisis, we see that national governments in the European Union (EU) turn to widespread surveillance and contact tracing in order to gather information on the spreading and risks of the virus. Contact tracing is the tracing of individuals and their contacts, who have been exposed to a pathogen that can cause a serious (cross-border) threat to health, and who are in danger of developing or have developed a disease. While these surveillance measures can focus on groups of people, contact tracing often directly affects individuals. In light of this difficult conundrum, the European Commission has published a toolbox for contact tracing and the interoperability between member states. In this guidance privacy is a key concern, including the use of contract tracing in a proportionate manner. Yet there is no guidance as to what proportionality might mean and how we should go about assessing this.

Contact tracing of individuals across the EU in the context of COVID-19 therefore raises the question how privacy can be protected when a disease rises to the level of a threat to security? In 2013, the EU has been given a larger role in pandemic responses, as formalized in the Health Threats Decision. As a consequence, contact tracing is now no longer a primarily national issue responsibility as information is exchanged at EU level. In the COVID-19 crisis, the practice of exchanging personal (health) data between the member states for the purpose of contact tracing gains importance. However, in the field of EU health law there is only limited guidance as to how public health can be safeguarded in a proportional manner.

In this article, we analyze EU case law in the field of security to give us guidance as to determine proportionality of limitations on privacy in light of a public health threat. Proportionality in this regard implies that the measures–in this case contact tracing–do not go further than what is needed in light of the public policy aims. In the case of COVID-19 the aim of protecting public health has risen to a level of threat that it can also be seen as a risk to security. However, important differences are also noteworthy and caution against a simple one to one comparison with security and public health. In the field of security policy makers are working often within a friend-enemy dichotomy, whereas in the field of public health the patient is seen as vulnerable and in need of assistance rather than as the enemy.

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