News & Politics

Privacy Advocate Kept COVID-19 Diagnosis Private from His Own Employees

Emergency medical technicians disinfect their equipment after delivering a patient to Elmhurst Hospital Center, Saturday, April 4, 2020 in the Queens borough of New York. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

I don’t know about you, but it’s been 34 days since I went out in public and I’m getting pretty antsy. Even if you understand the reasons they’re telling us to stay in our homes if at all possible, it’s still depressing and strange. Even claustrophiles are starting to get stir crazy.

But we’re doing it anyway, because we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We don’t want to get sick, that’s part of it. But more importantly, we don’t want to make anybody else sick. This COVID-19 Chinese virus is highly contagious and possibly deadly, and it’s more potentially lethal the older the victim is. We don’t want our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to get it, so we’re staying away from each other for now. It’s awful. It’s heartbreaking. It’s necessary.

Of course, not everyone thinks so. Just this past week, people who I thought were my friends have called me a “coward” who’s “hiding under the covers” by staying at home. I mean… okay, maybe they’re right? I just don’t want my mom and dad or any of my other relatives to get sick and die. I don’t want anybody else their age, or any age, to get sick and die. If that’s cowardice, then I freely admit it. A virus doesn’t care how brave you tell yourself you are.

(And yes, I realize not everybody can stay at home. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to, and I’m not judging anybody who can’t. Please stay safe out there.)

So I’m fine with any names you want to call me for trying to behave responsibly right now. Especially if the alternative is this. Issie Lapowsky, Protocol:

A chief critic of the tech industry’s attempts to track coronavirus patients went to work and held meetings with employees after his doctor directed him to take a test for COVID-19 that subsequently came back positive.

Marc Rotenberg, the president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., acknowledged in a memo to his staff and his board that he should have quarantined and alerted his staff that he was taking a coronavirus test on March 9, instead of continuing to work alongside them for two days…

“He’s out there saying privacy trumps surveillance,” said one former employee who worked there at the time. “Every time he opens his mouth, what runs through my head is: We need more surveillance.”

That’s the question: Where does an individual’s right to privacy end? What if he’s consciously putting other people’s lives at risk? What about their rights?

On March 30, after Rotenberg knew he was infected and most likely had spread the virus, he told BuzzFeed:

“People like to say, ‘well, we need to strike a balance between protecting public health and safeguarding privacy’ — but that is genuinely the wrong way to think about it.. You really want both. And if you’re not getting both, there’s a problem with the policy proposal.”

Well, Rotenberg certainly didn’t “strike a balance” in his own life, did he? He safeguarded his own privacy, at the cost of putting his employees’ health at risk. The privacy advocate just made the perfect counterargument to his own position.

I think privacy advocates are absolutely right to push back against overreach by governments and tech companies, especially now. Some of these rules and laws popping up all over the place are just ridiculous. (Gretchen Whitmer is protecting people against… planting seeds? Really?) We need to remain vigilant against threats to our liberty.

Today it’s: “This is for your own good.” Tomorrow it’s: “Because we said so.” The day after that, they don’t tell you anything because they no longer feel obliged to explain themselves.

But what about the liberty of others? Am I so important that I should get to run around out there and inadvertently infect others with a deadly virus? Or, as in the case of Marc Rotenberg, should I do so advertently? How is that reasonable? How is that just?

I don’t know how to fix any of this. Nobody does. But living in denial isn’t the answer. A full lockdown forever is impossible, and so is pretending we can just go back to the way things were. That’s only going to spread this hellish virus, like Rotenberg did.

None of this is our fault — it’s China’s fault, and to hell with anybody who defends them — but dealing with it is our responsibility.

Be smart. Don’t be a Rotenberg.

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