Vaccines, data and human rights

When asked about the Covid vaccination programme, the Queen suggested that citizens should “think about other people rather than themselves”. A commentator in the Times this week went rather further, saying that she felt frustration at the “vaccine refuseniks who plan to free-ride their way out of this pandemic on the back of the jab-taking majority.“. Of course, we now hear from the European Commission that vaccine passports will become de rigueur for those wanting to travel within the EU, and also for those wanting to enter that zone. Although it has now decided to bow to what most of the rest of us thought was inevitable, our own government was at first opposed to the very idea. It would cause ‘discrimination’ -  a very odd word to employ when for the last year the government has demanded self-isolation, surely an extreme form of discrimination, for those who’ve tested positive for our cheeky little virus.  

But it now seems likely that the House of Commons will have to debate the whole question. An online petition opposing vaccine passports has gained 200,000 ‘signatures’. It says that the vaccine passports could be "used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a Covid-19 vaccine". Hmm. Liberty, the human rights organisation, supports this view. They say “Immunity passports would be an over-reach on our rights, while simultaneously failing to protect everyone or get us out of this pandemic. We all want to get out of this pandemic as soon as possible – but this must not be at the expense of our rights or freedoms, or by pushing the most marginalised into an even more precarious position. These so-called passports claim they would ensure those who can prove they have coronavirus immunity can start to return to normal life. Which raises the question – what happens to everyone else?  One thing every suggestion has missed is that it’s impossible to have immunity passports which do not result in human rights abuses.”. Just a little over the top? Certainly I’m not aware that anyone will be excluded from having a vaccine by reason of being one of the marginalised. The state is bearing the cost of the vaccination and doing its best at a local level to reach people. The vaccine is available to everyone who wants it. The few not able to have it for medical reasons - I understand far less than 0.1% of the population - can easily be accommodated in any passport system.

But no, it seems it’s not as simple as that. According to Liberty, we need to look ahead, down that fabled slippery slope, to the dystopian future which this particular form of passport seemingly heralds. They no doubt take as their inspiration Benjamin Franklin’s line that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”. I am not very convinced that one sentence can sum up the complexities of life. Liberty, however, goes on to say: “We should all be able to live our lives free from unnecessary interference – any form of immunity passport would rob us of that. And history tells us that once we give up these hard-won rights, we rarely get them back. Even the introduction of a voluntary passport to prove if you’ve had a vaccine could result in many being blocked from essential public services, work or housing. Meanwhile once these passports have been created for one purpose – like travel – it would be all too easy for their use to be extended and abused. This would result in a two-tier system in which some people can access freedoms and support while others are shut out – with the most marginalised among us hardest hit. This has wider implications, too. Any form of immunity passport could pave the way for a full ID system - an idea which has repeatedly been rejected as incompatible with building a rights-respecting society.”. So then our actual passports also ‘created for one purpose – like travel’, which have so far not led to the dark future anticipated by Liberty, are fine. And obviously we must reject the idea that other countries with ID cards can possibly respect human rights. I do wonder about the intellectual calibre of Liberty’s staff.

These days, however, the use of our personal data is seen on all sides as fundamental to the whole question of rights. Indeed, legislation passed by the French government and recently approved by the guardians of the French constitution, Le Conseil d’Etat, allows the government greater rights to store data about their citizens. Writers in Le Monde from the left and and Le Figaro from the right have condemned this ‘attack on liberty’. One article in Le Monde is entitled 'Individuals are monitored not for what they do, but for who they are'. It makes the point that, before these decrees, it was only possible to record data relating to "political, philosophical, religious or trade union activities". However, since 2 December 2020, it is now possible to record data relating to "political opinions, philosophical or religious beliefs or trade union membership" and also "health data revealing particular risk". This change has been described as "terminological" by the Minister of the Interior. The lawyers aren’t convinced. And, using my best Parliamentary language, I would call the minister’s description a ‘terminological inexactitude’.

Clearly there has been a significant change, although not one which we in Blighty would have noticed. After all, in the UK the whole concept of privacy only really came into existence some time after we joined the EU. Until then there were no obvious statutory limits on what data the government could collect or for how long it could keep it. And certainly, the common law gave us no protection. Since the advent of ‘data protection’, the government has had to be more careful about obtaining and storing our data. But for security purposes, anything, well, almost anything, goes. I do wonder, however, what difference any of this makes. Our desires, attitudes, buying habits and almost every other part of our lives are all on show to our true lords and masters, Google and Facebook, who use them not to oppress us politically, but in order to enable others to take our money off us through hyper-targetted advertising. 

As we have previously discussed, Google and Facebook are not above corralling us with others of the same opinions in order to keep us all happy and contented online - and so seeing even more of the advertising from which they receive payment. And all the while they preen themselves for so generously providing us with a free service. There is though the possibility of change. That other colossus of marketing, Apple, which has a business model depending on the sale of its hardware at exorbitant prices, has decided to take a swing at their competitors who rely on the loot generated from hyper-targetted advertising. There is now a new iPhone feature called App Tracking Transparency, which will force apps to ask for user permission to access an important device identifier unique to each phone. It is vital to companies like Facebook and Google in order to serve and measure mobile ads.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, in a speech clearly targetted at Facebook, warned: “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.” He went on to say: “At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good and the longer the better.”. I’m sure his righteousness is in no way market-led. But at the same time, various governments are taking steps to force Facebook to take responsibility for the egregious posts which appear on its billions of pages. Which I think means that, in the not too distant future, we might find that the unhindered dissemination of our personal details is substantially reduced - this, ironically, not because of human rights organisaations such as Liberty, but because of pressure from a combination of their natural enemies, those dreadful capitalists and governments.

Paul Buckingham

2 March 2021

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